On Sunday night I stumbled into a strange and foreign world – a pop concert by the US singer Kehlani. We found The Forum completely packed upon arrival, with the 22-year-old Californian already on stage and the similarly youthful audience clearly enthralled. Not wishing to intrude, we aligned ourselves with the group of parents waiting patiently at the back of the room, a position that allowed a clear and watchful view over the proceedings.
Kehlani was assisted by a DJ, a keys player who also provided backing vocals, a drummer and two dancers, though the songs relied heavily on backing tracks. Though I will admit to knowing quite little about her, it was immediately clear that Kehlani possesses what is known as star power. She oozed confidence as she moved across the stage, sometimes stepping into choreographed unison with the dancers, sometimes doing her own thing. Her voice was impressively strong, relentlessly belting out what seemed like anthem after anthem, most of which were being sung back at her by the enthused crowd.
This particular style of modern American pop/r’n’b utilises dynamics to create big, adrenalin-inducing choruses with lyrics that are simple, catchy and earnest. The verses were often more stripped back and rhythmic, leaving plenty of space for the kind of extended note singing that goes with the genre, as well as a convincing rap verse included at one stage. Importantly, the songs were filled with an endless supply of hooks, helping to keep even a cynical rock critic on his toes and nodding along.
Like any pop star worth her weight in Insta followers, Kehlani’s brand is as much about her story as it is the music, and large amounts of stage time were dedicated to pre-prepared speeches. One of the subjects of a particularly long interlude was the current vote for marriage equality, during which Kehlani referred to herself as “gay as hell”, and invited two young women to the stage for a marriage proposal.
It was a genuinely touching moment and, as I stood shoulder to shoulder with some of their parents, I couldn’t help but be excited for the young audience who were clearly having the time of their lives. When each chorus section hit and the lights illuminated the floor, thousands of hands holding thousands of phones were revealed. When Kehlani sang about feeling powerful or vulnerable it meant something to these kids, and while I probably won’t be listening to this music in my free time, it was an impressively bombastic, entertaining and seamless show.
Written for Beat Magazine.