Kehlani has had a hell of a year.
The 20-year-old R&B singer signed to Atlantic Records and embarked on her first international tour. Her second mixtape, You Should Be Here, dropped in April and is now nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary Album. Rolling Stone named her one of the “10 Artists You Need to Know” and Billboardcalled You Should Be Here the “first great R&B album” of the year.
Her back-story is interesting, too. Kehlani, who grew up in Oakland, lost her father shortly after she was born due to gun violence. Her mother, a drug addict and criminal, was arrested when she was a baby, and Kehlani was taken in by her aunt when she was three-months old. When she was 16, she moved out and became homeless, stealing from big chain stores and sleeping at trap houses. She’s also openly bisexual, and it’s common knowledge that she had her first girlfriend by ninth grade.
So, when I heard that she was headlining a show at the Fox Theater (two shows, in fact), I figured I should check her out. Given all the hoopla about her this past year and her recent single, “The Way,” with Chance the Rapper (which has almost 8 million plays on YouTube), I was intrigued. Why is Kehlani so hot right now? I wondered. Not only was the Saturday night show I was about to attend sold out, but the Sunday night show was, as well. And there weren’t even any named openers – the show is billed simply as “Kehlani and Friends.”
My curiosity about the young crooner was so intense that I opted to miss Oakland-born, R&B singer Goapele’s free show in downtown Oakland. I had seen Goapele perform back in 2014 and knew that she put on excellent shows, so it was a tough decision to make. But in the end, Kehlani won out because I was on a mission and I wanted some answers.
The first thing that struck me as noteworthy about the show, aside from the fact that nobody had a clue about who else besides Kehlani was performing, was the preponderance of females. For every dozen or so girls there may have been one poor guy, ostensibly dragged there by his SO. Then again, Kehlani is a female artist who sings love ballads and slow jams, so the stilted demographics at the show weren’t so much surprising as they were affirming.
As shows tend to go, the openers (i.e. Kehlani’s “friends”) were revealed to us before Kehlani herself came onstage. They included: a singer named Ambre, a 13-year-old named Marteen Estevez, someone named Samaria (whom I admittedly missed), and Super Duper Kyle, a more-than-enthusiastic singer who referred to the audience as “niggas” at least five times. As I overheard one girl telling her friends about what hanging out backstage before the show was like, “I didn’t know who any of the people who performed were. We literally were back there chilling and they were like, ‘Sup,’ and I was like, ‘Sup?’”
There were also problems with the sound from the get-go. During the openers and DJ sets, the sound would fade out to silence, leaving the crowd wondering if it was an intentional gimmick or a snafu. Shortly before Kehlani came on, the DJ cycled through the first 30 seconds of the most popular hip-hop songs from the last two months. Let’s just say it was amusing watching the girl next to me dance, then stop, dance, then stop, as the songs kept changing on her.
When Kehlani eventually came on-stage, she did two things before she started singing. The first thing she did was boss around the lighting guys whom she repeatedly referred to as “Mister” (pronounced “mist-uh”). “I need it black in here, Mister,” she commanded. Once he (or they?) obliged, she stood in silence as a recording of a phone conversation between her and an un-identified older man played. I would write more about it if I could, but that’s the thing: I didn’t understand any of it. I can’t tell you what either party said or what the man’s relationship to Kehlani was because nothing was explained.
She was dressed like Christina Aguilera a la “Genie In A Bottle,” which I applaud (meaning she wore a cropped tank top and cargo pants). She opened with the lead single from her recent mixtape, “You Should Be Right Here,” and, upon finishing the song, gave the audience a two-sentence bio. “I graduated 8th grade on this stage,” she said. “I grew up here straight outta fucking Oakland.”
From there, she launched into more songs, playing tracks from both of her mixtapes (including one called “How That Taste” that has the line, “How that shit taste?” repeated three times in a row). She also sang covers of “Preach” by Drake, “Just Friends” by Musiq Soulchild, and a Stevie Wonder single.
By the second song, my friend nudged me to ask me a question: Was she lip-syncing? The answer: no, but she definitely wasn’t singing full songs, either. Instead, she would dance while her recorded vocals played. It was pretty obvious because there’s no way she’d have been able to flap her arms and bounce up and down like she was while keeping her voice level.
- Jessie Schiewe
Speaking of her voice, she didn’t do much with it. Whether this was because her voice isn’t that special to begin with, or because she’s just not skilled enough, wasn’t clear. But this was perhaps my biggest qualm with the show: she barely tried. Her voice was flat and her renditions were rote. Compared to two shows I’d seen earlier this week (Kelela at The Independent and Kat Dahlia at Social Hall), Kehlani made no efforts to innovate or expand upon her songs, to sing high notes or even to hold them. She merely sang the songs exactly as they had been recorded on her albums. She was like a robot going through the motions. She also copped out of singing during each song by telling the audience to “sing it.” This is a particular pet peeve of mine and I loathe when artists do it. My argument: we came here to hear YOU sing, not to hear the peanut gallery sing.
The sound problems, which included a piercing screech from the microphone from time to time, only accrued over time. Her lyrics were muffled and hard to decipher (that is, when she made the effort to sing). The only times she sang full songs were when she did slow numbers. I don’t know who told her that singing these lackluster, morose songs was a good idea (not to mention singing four of them in a row), but whoever it was did not know what they were doing. Think about it: you have a theater filled with young women out on a Saturday night, drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking joints, and decked out in heels and sexy outfits. Shouldn’t the goal be to turn the crowd up, rather than put them to sleep?
As she got deeper into the show, she started to warm-up and became chattier with the audience (which translated into being preachy and condescending). She talked about how we live in a world “where producers are very under-appreciated” and also about how “[we, the audience] deserve everything and [should] know that every day [we] deserve to be loved.” My particular favorite was her spiel about how simply saying, “Hi, I hope you have a nice day” to someone could make their terrible day, a better day. “It’s called pay it forward,” she told the audience.
- Jessie Schiewe
Other things that happened during the show:
– P. Lo from HBK Gang got up on stage and performed two songs. (At the Sunday night performance, R&B’s latest golden boy, Bryson Tiller, made an appearance);
– Kamaya, a rapper “from Oakland [who] made a fucking banger, ya’ll” performed her song, “How Does It Feel;”
– Kehlani told a girl in the audience that her baby hairs were on fleek and said to another girl, “I love your glasses, girl. They make your face look amazing. Don’t ever try to be cute and not wear your glasses ‘cuz they’re cute, too.”
At one point, the DJ gave a shout-out to Kehlani calling her “the princess of Oakland.” But is she? I would say not. Kehlani might have a lot of fans, but there’s nothing special about her voice, her songs, or her live shows. Her story might be intriguing, and I commend her for getting so far given the shitty circumstances she grew up in, but that’s not enough to warrant being “the princess of Oakland.” There are more than a few skilled singers from Oakland, including Goapele and Keyshia Cole, to name a few, and calling Kehlani “the princess” is both insulting and dismissive.
Did I figure out what all the hype about Kehlani is about? No. Do I regret not seeing Goapele instead? Maybe. But you know what they say, hindsight is 20/20.