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Kehlani at O2 Academy Brixton review: solidly entertaining but too safe and sensible

Kehlani  (handout)
Kehlani (handout)

Fortune has blessed Kehlani with loyal and patient fans. Returning to Britain after more than four years away, the Californian R&B singer-songwriter played the first of two back-to-back shows at Brixton Academy to a sell-out crowd.

The 27-year-old Oakland native and former America’s Got Talent contestant, full name Kehlani Ashley Parrish, has kept busy during this long Covid-enforced absence by recording two albums, giving birth to a daughter, and switching pronouns from she/her to they/them.

Part of the European leg of a world tour promoting Kehlani‘s recently released third album, Blue Water Road, this was a slick show, albeit more basic than its US blueprint, with a smaller team of performers and scaled-down stage production. Flanked by three musicians and two dancers, the star came over as earnest and sweetly humble, with a strong voice and sassy dance moves, even if many of the songs felt faceless and weightless.

Indeed, considering how much Kehlani‘s public image is steeped in non-binary queerness, this show was oddly straight. The majority of the set stayed firmly within the singer’s default mode of smoochy, syrupy, mildly saucy soul-pop, which worked well on stand-out numbers such as Can I or Any Given Sunday, but the formula became increasingly anodyne and conservative over the long haul.

Compared to how adventurous R&B royalty like Beyoncé or Janelle Monáe have been with their careers, couching strong political messages in boldly eclectic musical fusions, it seems strange that a younger rising star like Kehlani should take such a wholesome middle-of-the-road approach.

In classic American celebrity tourist tradition, Kehlani showered the Brixton crowd with shameless flattery, assuring us that London was the most hotly anticipated date on the tour. “London is my second biggest market out of anywhere on Earth,” the singer said, “that’s why I call it my second home.” Ah, the sweet smell of commerce.

In fairness, Kehlani did back up this message by bringing young West London rapper and recent Mobo award-winner Dreya Mac onstage for a lively guest appearance, which mainly served to underscore just how much the rest of this show was lacking in spark and charisma.

Admittedly, excitement picked up a little in the second half when Kehlani wheeled out more muscular tunes including Up at Night, a sleek disco-funk number co-written by Justin Bieber, and the stuttering, booty-shaking, mildly salacious seduction song Water.

Other late highlights included the lascivious lesbian love serenade Honey and the blustery power ballad You Should Be Here, which brought a welcome hint of wounded melodrama to all this schmaltzy romantic cooing. This was a solidly entertaining show, but Kehlani played it safe and sensible when a little more bravado and originality would have been very welcome.

O2 Academy Brixton, to December 5, academymusicgroup.com