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MUSIC REVIEW

Rihanna digs deep to find energy for tour’s last show

Rihanna Singer Rihanna performs at the Staples Center on June 28, 2011 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
By Marc Hirsh
Globe Correspondent / July 25, 2011

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If nothing else, we know that Rihanna wasn’t lip-synching. That much became clear five songs into last night’s concert at the TD Garden, when she launched into Prince’s notorious “Darling Nikki.’’ She started to sing but quickly cracked up at her dancers’ writhing; by the time the song ended, she’d only been able to spit out about three lines total. She missed some lines two songs later, during the funk kick of “Let Me.’’

Whether it explains those lapses or not, the fact that it was the final night of Rihanna’s tour was probably responsible for another issue gnawing at her performance: her lack of energy.

It certainly wasn’t a matter of listlessness, as she covered the stage (occasionally navigating a hidden moving sidewalk) like a pro during “Disturbia’’ and “Shut Up And Drive.’’ But it seemed as though she was constantly pushing, unlike the confident power that she brought to the Comcast Center last summer.

Maybe as a result, Rihanna was strongest on the slower numbers.

Her wounded pleading on “Take A Bow’’ closed out the main set, and she began the encore splayed out on a grand piano raised above the stage singing “Love The Way You Lie.’’

And she killed on power ballad par excellence “California King Bed’’ as sparks rained from the ceiling and Boston boy Nuno Bettencourt delivered an appropriately big guitar solo.

But there were other things on her mind, as evidenced by the hard-and-dirty-sex mini-set kicked off by “Nikki.’’ With chains attached to her wrist and ankle as disembodied hands groped her from beneath her riser, “S&M’’ already seemed like a parody of itself even before her dancers began swatting her with pillows and a cushion shaped like a phallus.

While that was cartoon sex, the slow, hard grind of “Skin’’ was far more convincing, up to and including the audience member Rihanna brought on stage to gyrate with.

She was the one who came to the crowd on another Prince song, “Glamorous Life.’’ Banging on timbales, she proved that she was no Sheila E.

For the rest of the show, it seemed she was barely holding on to being Rihanna.

J. Cole had some big shoes to fill - original opener Cee-Lo Green dropped out of the tour earlier - but he was genial and gracious in the role of the soulful, lovelorn rapper.

Marc Hirsh can be reached at officialmarc@gmail.com.

RIHANNA With J. Cole

At: TD Garden, last night