“Basic! Basic! / Ain’t nothing ‘ bout me basic!” taunts a boisterous Kehlani along with the sold-out crowd at Concord Music Hall, whipping around her waist-length curly weave, claw-like acrylic nails, tattooed 6-pack and some kind of pleather/fishnet getup. There’s no arguing that everything about the 22-year-old is the opposite of ordinary.
And championing that un-basicness seems to be her objective. As she danced and wailed out her endearing pop ballads such as the sobering “Advice” and R&B jaunts like “Piece of Mind,” she carried a sincerity and pure joy of a pop fan, yet exhuberated a refined star quality and talent of a seasoned veteran. Her unique combination of intimate honesty and ruthless confidence fills any room with a warm genuity that’s rare from such a manufactured genre.
When the lights dimmed and the room quieted, the haunting, vacant harmonies of her sexy lullaby “Gangsta” crept out of the speakers as the bass began to bubble up into a crash.
“I’m fucked up, I’m black and blue/ I’m built for it, all the abuse/ I got secrets that nobody, nobody knows,” she cadences in a near-whisper, slowly singing her words louder with each lyric. “I’m good on that pussy shit / I don’t want what I can get/ I want someone, with secrets that nobody, nobody, nobody knows!” Kehlani’s raspy tenor grows into a roaring cry along pendulating tempo. It becomes one of the night’s most overtaking moments, her pullulating voice becoming the thunder crash under the lightning storm of strobes.
Her full-length debut SweetSexySavage anecdotes her recent battles with depression, surviving a suicide and coming into her own. Her delivery on each track is strong but sweet—frank, personal and relatable. But her live performances are like an indulgent timewarp back to the overembelished concerts of the ‘90s, complete with saccharine harmonies, synchronized backup dancers, costume changes and lots of blue eyeshadow.
The flavorful 17-song set was punctuated by a few breaks she took to level with the crowd, begging the audience to make specific and detailed promises—from ‘honor yourself’ to ‘never let yourself take on the bad from others’ and ‘act only with love.’ Hearing her vent about her struggles, values and biggest life lessons was incredibly telling of her empathy and humanity as an artist—not to mention her charity work with nonprofits in each city she’s promoted throughout the tour—but her long, endless rants about the meaning of love were lost on the semi-drunk crowd, which visibly frustrated her, and made the endearing speeches a bit awkward. “SHHH! Can y’all please stop talking?! I’m not just talkin’ just to talk, I really want y’all to hear me,” she said in many ways throughout the night, oftentimes just silently waiting for the audience to catch the hint like a teacher disciplining her pupils.
However, her speeches came with good intentions, and her ‘sweet’ always seems to balance out her ‘savage.’ As the night began to close, Kehlani and her dancers turned their backs to the audience as the into synths of her hit pop anthem “CRZY” commenced to an excitable crowd. The momentum grew until Kehlani spotted a woozy fan in the center of a mosh pit, bringing the song to a halt as she passed her a water bottle from the stage. “You ok sweetie? Drink this, slooooow, take slow sips. If anyone else here feels sick raise your hand and we’ll help you out. We don’t want nobody from the audience to end up in the emergency room tonight!”
She flashes a smile, does a little spin as the song begins again.