Her music director reveals the Jay-Z texts, pregnant rehearsals, and evolving setlists behind the show.
BY KEITH NELSON
IF YOU’RE LIKE millions of people worldwide, you still have Rihanna’s Super Bowl LVII halftime performance embedded in your mind. We saw the soul-piercing gaze that froze the internet in wonder and the comforting pregnant belly rub that circulated the internet. We didn’t, however, see the people who helped bring Rihanna’s vision to life, the Jay-Z texts that put the building blocks in motion, and Rihanna pushing her pregnant body in rehearsals. And we saw the spectacle; we didn’t see the whole story. Adam Blackstone did.
The 40-year-old co-music director of the most-watched live performance of the year so far is no stranger. He’s already orchestrated a posthumous Prince performance for Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII halftime show and helped Dr. Dre assemble the rap Avengers for his Super Bowl LVI halftime performance. Blackstone is the multi-instrumentalist mastermind Rihanna texts personally when she needs someone she can trust to turn her Super Bowl-sized vision into reality. And he knows just how dedicated she was to deliver the best performance possible—pregnant and all.
“She knew she agreed to do this big show, and she was letting nothing stop her from having the best performance possible,” Blackstone tells Men’s Health. “She pushed through whatever she was going on with her health.”
Blackstone sacrificed time with his family, sometimes only seeing them for 24 hours before jetting back to rehearsals. Now, fresh off his third Super Bowl halftime show and first Grammy nomination for his album Legacy, Blackstone reveals the Jay-Z texts, post-Golden Globes rehearsals, and evolving setlists that went into Rihanna’s grand return to the stage, below.
When did you know you’d be the music director for Rihanna’s Super Bowl halftime show?
Adam Blackstone: Jay-Z and [Roc Nation co-founder and vice chairman of Roc Nation] Jay Brown texted me the day she put up the photo of her hand up holding the football. She posted that on September 5th. I got a text pretty soon thereafter from Hov and Jay Brown, the manager. Jay Brown basically said, “Are you ready?” From that point on, we started to plan.
When was your first meeting with Rihanna about the show?
It was probably right before Thanksgiving. I wanted to ask her about her vision. Super Bowl choreographer Parris Goebel is definitely one of the creative masterminds behind what was going on on the field. Also, my co-musical director, Omar Edwards, was there. We all sat down with the queen and asked her what message she wanted to convey. We also wanted to know the feeling she wanted the people to leave with. Throwing our set list together, we ended up on version 46 or something like that.
Wait, there were 46 different setlists before the one we saw?
How long before the show did you finalize the setlist we saw on Sunday?
Three o’clock [laughs].
What was her vision?
Her vision was to have the medley not sound like or have it be viewed like any other Super Bowl we have seen in the past. I think she conveyed that from her set design, how she incorporated some hip-hop trap hood shit with the props, and landing on a powerful moment with “Diamonds.” Her being able to carry this set without any guests hasn’t been done in a long time. The last one I did without any guests was Justin Timberlake [at Super Bowl LII]. But, even then, we did a tribute to Prince. Having no guests is a very powerful statement for the Black woman and queen that she is.
Why were there so many different setlists?
It was more about how she wanted to navigate through the songs. Did we want to do it by tempo? Did we want to do it by content? Or did want to do it by storyline? Did we want to do it by the key of the song? Do we start powerful with the “bitch” moment? Do we start in the Pop genre with “Umbrella?”
How did you translate that vision into the set?
One of the biggest obstacles for me was turning those hits into a 13-minute segment. She may tell me she wants to do “We Found Love,” “Umbrella,” and “Diamonds,” but each of those songs are almost four minutes each or more. My job is to get the most powerful, impactful moments of everybody’s favorite song and make it feel like one seamless show.
How did her pregnancy factor into the reveal?
She was the consummate professional. She knew she agreed to do this big show, and she was letting nothing stop her from having the best performance possible. That, to me, is a testament to her professionalism and the icon that she is. She pushed through whatever was going on with her health. I think she’s an inspiration for other people going through whatever to push through.
Rihanna rubbed her belly during her performance. Was that pre-planned during rehearsal?
I think that was very spontaneous. Her fist-bumping me during the performance was also spontaneous. We locked eyes, and with my eyes, I said to her, “We are killing this stage.”
What was the rehearsal schedule like?
We rehearsed from mid-December until the day before the Super Bowl. Those hours would range anywhere from 12 p.m. to 12 a.m. with eight-hour increments of those types of days. We had to move from a rehearsal studio to a bigger studio where we could fit the set to an actual stadium arena so we could do what we needed to do so we could simulate what was going to happen at State Farm Stadium. Rihanna would have her allotted time. The dancers would be in one room, the band would be in another room, and she would be in another room. I don’t want to make it seem like she was there for 12 hours straight [laughs].
She attended the Golden Globes during the time you all were rehearsing for the Super Bowl, right?
Yes, absolutely. She was pulling double duty. Sometimes triple duty. We also did [Savage X Fenty Show] at the same. She got nominated for the Golden Globes, and immediately after the Globes was over, she came to rehearsal that night. That shows her dedication for sure.
What would you say was the most physically-demanding part of the performance?
The choreography being so precise. Everybody’s head, everybody’s leg, everybody’s hand, everybody’s neck, everybody’s knee bend is so precise and synchronized. That’s one of the most demanding parts. No matter the body type, size, weight, length, or whatever, they were all doing the same thing. And that takes a toll. The choreographer Parris Goebel and I demand everyone to go what we call “full out” every time, which means to give your 10,000 maximum percent. We want to be as best as we can be for her. We want her to always see that this is the show, no matter if it’s December 10 in a small room somewhere or if it’s February 12 at the stadium; this is what the show can and will feel like.
She was pregnant and performed while suspended dozens of feet above the ground. When you all rehearsed that, did you have any concerns?
I did not [have] any, and that’s where her practice came in. She also had the best team around her that she trusts for safety. She was able to trust this was the vision we were bringing forth to her that she wanted, and she wanted to execute it, as well. I wasn’t scared for her at all, maybe at that first rehearsal when she was up there. But, by the time we got to the stage, she was a pro.
What were your interactions with Rihanna like after the show?
We just screamed and said “We did that!” I congratulated her, and she thanked myself and Omar Edwards for our dedication to making the music what it was. Every time I see her after a show, I let her know I have her back, and she thanks me. Our relationship is really cool.