“Tonight, you’re at a Kehlani show,” the singer told the sold-out crowd at the Fillmore Silver Spring. “So I’m gonna talk a lot.” Thankfully, the 22-year-old Oakland talent wasn’t all talk on Thursday night as she sang and danced her way through her debut album, “SweetSexySavage,” a pop-R&B jaunt that evokes the melodies and moods of ’90s acts such as TLC and Aaliyah, but with a contemporary edge.
Take show opener “Keep On,” with its handclap-foot stomp beat and lilting lyrics that sound like vintage Brandy. The song finds Kehlani singing about being in a one-sided relationship — “You just keep on taking me back” — but she might as well have been nodding to the night’s nostalgic vibes, from the songwriting to the girl-group choreography she perfected with her two dancers.
But Kehlani isn’t all homage: “SweetSexySavage” is full of syrupy grooves with the metallic, bass-heavy attack of contemporary hip-hop. It’s a tempo that suited Kehlani’s seductive streak, whether she was getting sexplicit about her “vixen”-like tendencies on “Do U Dirty” or stripteasing her emotions on “Everything Is Yours.”
Even on her records, Kehlani’s smoky soprano is more sweet and sexy than sonically staggering. In concert, she’s like many of her peers, skipping higher notes and letting backing tracks and the audience carry the tune. But while her voice might not be the most impressive instrument, it is an excellent means of expression.
Instead of typical banter, Kehlani used the time between songs to speak with the audience about the importance of donating locally to people in need; about self-respect and self-care; about “liv[ing] every single day with nothing but love in your heart.” For an artist who has been open about her sexuality (she identifies as bisexual) and her mental health issues (she survived a 2016 suicide attempt), unfiltered honesty is her modus operandi.
That was clear after her “favorite part of the show,” when she shouted out the “loud and proud” members of the LGBTQ community to a raucous reception. “Never stop being that loud and that proud,” she said to cheers, wishing the audience “Happy Pride” before launching into “Undercover,” a buoyant highlight of “SweetSexySavage” that defiantly flips off anyone who would disparage a loving relationship, queer or otherwise.
For the audience, it seemed that Kehlani’s honesty and ease at speaking with and for them was the real reason they packed the Fillmore — a greater factor than her irresistible jams and coquettish choreography. Anyone in the audience could mimic the night’s musical experience at home, cranking up the stereo or watching her videos on YouTube. But why do that when you can be in a safe space, in communion with people who look, act and exist just like you?