Dressed in a black leotard and custom jacket, Kehlani jokes that she’s put in some real effort tonight, by not coming out in sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also true: throughout the hour and a half performance she delivers at Manchester’s O2 Ritz, her attention to detail is clear. Without the need for a bloated production budget, the Oakland songstress works within her means to create an evening of entertainment that never gets boring. With the use of small costume variations, props and choreography, as well as careful sequencing, Kehlani keeps the audience captivated throughout her lengthy set - which even includes a mid-way toilet break!
Every song feels purposeful and thoughtfully planned; she covers all of her notable singles and mixtape stand-outs. She takes centre stage for an arresting, no-frills performance of ‘Gangsta’ her ode to Harley Quinn’s hopeless infatuation with the Joker from Suicide Squad, and just as easily sets herself up as the perfect candidate to soundtrack the next Disney movie with a breathtaking rendition of ‘Hold My Heart’. Then there is the choreography that she executes with her dancers, throwing back to the 90’s girl group influence that she wears proudly on her sleeve.
Of course, it’s her vocals that ultimately shine through, without the need for pre-recorded backing tracks even while dancing. Kehlani clearly is a phenomenal vocalist, and not one who’s managed to make it work thanks to studio wizardry. While so many new R&B and hip-hop acts are able to surf on pre-determined hype - and the fact that their audience is largely in attendance to create fomo-inducing Snapchat content - it’s refreshing to watch Kehlani dispel these ideas and share something that’s dripping with talent, hard work and self-improvement.
At the heart of Kehlani’s show however, is her personality and the very real camaraderie she shares with her team. Watching the way she interacts with her dancers, DJ, fans and anyone else she chooses to address, is uplifting and it’s encouraging to see a young woman embracing the role model status that goes hand in hand with the attention she’s garnered. The majority of those in attendance at tonight’s show are females around her age, and she admirably uses her platform to offer advice she’s taken from her whirlwind of a career so far. Talking as a friend and never an authority figure, she warns about the perils of our social media obsessed generation; asking her fans to remember to make time for themselves, to switch their phones off from time to time and reconnect with their core values.
Only 12 months ago Kehlani became a trending topic when photos emerged of her in a hospital bed, narrowly escaping the clutches of a suicide attempt after having decided that the pressures she was facing as a 21-year-old rising star were too much for her. She takes a moment to address this period of her life before her closing number ‘Thank You’, and, as the joy returns to her face, it punctuates the night with an reminder of what we can overcome as humans. No matter how low things can get, there are always others counting on us, and that’s worth fighting for.
Kehlani has legions of young fans counting on her for inspiration - in our interview with her for Clash 100 she admitted she’s set it up that way - but having barely broken the 20’s herself, that’s a lot of pressure. Tonight, being able to see how much fun she’s having on stage, and what that means to her fans; it certainly looks worthwhile.
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Words: Grant Brydon
Photo Credit: Anna Victoria Best