It was uncharacteristically busy in the D.C.-area music world Thursday night. Fans of R&B might be seeing Kelela at the 9:30 Club. Hip-hop heads had ASAP Ferg and friends at the Fillmore. Country music came to the Rock & Roll Hotel via Tyler Childers. But if you were looking for the future-present of club music, you had to be in the subterranean confines of Union Stage to see Bad Gyal.
Bad Gyal is the alias of Alba Farelo, a 20-year-old Barcelona-based artist whose music airlifts Caribbean styles such as dancehall and reggaeton to Catalonia by way of gaseous grooves crafted by electronic-music heavyweights. She sings an Auto-Tuned, three-language melange and sounds like a sleepwalking Rihanna, who is clearly an influence — Gyal’s breakthrough hit was a Catalan remake of “Work” called “Pai.”
On Thursday, at the first show of a brief U.S. tour, Bad Gyal seemed to be a Rihanna in the making. In her platform sneakers, Nike sweatpants, sports bra and hoop earrings, she already had the style-icon part down. Her hips snapped, crackled and popped all night as she danced el perreo with an imaginary partner. And like Rihanna, she showed a flair for the sounds that keep dance floors moving around the globe, from the synth-powered, Spanglish dancehall jam “Jacaranda” to the somber reggaeton of “Blink” (produced by Colombia-born, U.K.-based talent Florentino, who also served as her DJ) to “Internationally,” a neon pop anthem about her come-up (“Yo grabo en mi casa, sueno internationally,” or “I record in my house, I dream internationally”). There were even moments of slow motion, heartbroken R&B.
Most of all, Bad Gyal’s deep well of charisma made it feel like the audience was seeing a star — fearless enough to let audience members hop on stage and dance-battle, grounded enough to toss a parched dancer a bottle of water and levelheaded enough to do it all for just several dozen concertgoers. That last part was particularly telling: It was a relief to see her stoked rather than discouraged by the modest crowd, as if an audience of 50 or 500 or 5,000 would all get the same Bad Gyal.
The only part missing was the singing, in a traditional sense. Like some of her contemporaries in the rap world, Bad Gyal let recorded tracks carry the tune. And when she did sing — or even talk to the audience — it was across the uncanny valley created by Auto-Tune algorithms. But for Bad Gyal, the vocal effects are a feature, not a bug: Who better to lead this futuristic, borderless dance party than an android?