Poor sound and a cold room? This rising R’n’B star deserved better
Kehlani is rising R’n’B royalty, but you wouldn’t have known that from Sunday night’s show at Brixton Academy. “Make it rain on your stage any given Sunday,” the Oakland, California singer (who prefers gender-neutral pronouns) promised during their third song, but this stage offered fog instead, by way of poor sound quality and a cold venue.
The 27-year-old deserved better. Since their 2015 breakthrough, Kehlani has boasted a prolific output and chart success with their conversational, confessional R’n’B that dips a toe in pop, from the 1990s throwback sound of their early songs to the chamber pop of latest album blue water road. They collaborate with major artists like Stormzy and Justin Bieber, while their personal life is no less high profile, break-ups and breakdowns playing out in the public eye.
Yet Kehlani has always kept it real. “Don’t come over taking me serious,” they warned the London crowd on the first of two sold out nights, their charisma thawing the under-heated venue during a brisk, shortened set. The gently lit, stripped-down stage – just two dancers, backing tracks, live drums and keys – suited their first five songs, all of which hailed from blue water road, an album that tracks the tenderness of a burgeoning relationship via acoustic guitar and strings.
Songs such as Tangerine foregrounded Kehlani’s faultless vocal performance, but a muffled sound quality encumbered the rest of the show, their voice overpowered by bass on older, livelier material. Their stage presence offered some relief: hits like Bieber-collab Up at Night came with dance routines that evoked Kehlani’s childhood love for Britney. The stage was frequently mosaicked by thousands of phone screens, the crowd recording everything from dance moves and torch ballads to Kehlani straddling the front row during sax-laden track Hate the Club.
Still, you wanted to actually be able to hear some of the wordplay that makes Kehlani such a refreshing artist: lines like Serial Lover’s “I got bodies I’ma take to the grave / I got girls I wanna give my last name” that subvert R’n’B stereotypes about sexuality. “It’s rare that a person like me has been allowed to exist in my industry as long as I have,” they pointed out during the show, alluding to their non-binary lesbian identity.
But that rightful air of celebration floundered. Despite the warmth of their music and personality, coats remained firmly on all night: this cold, rushed, muffled affair wasn’t the show Kehlani deserves to give.
Touring the UK and Ireland until next week; kehlani.com/tour