Kehlani gazed out into a crowd swarming eagerly towards Lower Sproul and the surrounding balconies, buildings and stairways at ASUC SUPERB’s annual welcome week concert Friday. “I used to walk all through this place,” the Oakland-based R&B queen announced, “When I had dreams of going to school, I wanted to go here.”
Once again, the crowd burst into cheers so naturally that it would have been hard to believe that they had stood in awkward silence just a few minutes before.
Hypewoman Noodles wove together throwback jams, SoundCloud bangers and more recent radio hits into a sonic swatch of what was to come, energizing the crowd for Kehlani’s performance. Yet, even while some danced nervously and some rapped along to the songs they recognized in fleeting flurries of enthusiasm, the crowd remained mostly subdued.
The moment Kehlani walked on stage, the casually detached vibe that had blanketed the crowd for most of the night transformed into a palpable liveliness.
Flanked by two perfectly coordinated backup dancers, the ever-energetic Noodles and a silent-but-cool keyboardist, Kehlani presented herself with talented company but still set herself apart effortlessly. From her bright blue bob to the baggy overalls and heeled boots that she somehow pulled off with grace, the singer glowed with confidence and charisma from head to toe.
When she’s fresh off the success of her first Billboard Hot 100 charting single — “Gangsta” from the “Suicide Squad” soundtrack, which she performed live for the first time Friday — and on her way to releasing her highly anticipated first album, why wouldn’t she be exuding such infectious confidence?
More so than any suave confidence, and certainly more so than the commercial successes that this confidence may be built on, it is Kehlani’s ability to identify with the crowd that inspired the shared effervescent enthusiasm. She presents her vulnerability openly. Her experiences of love and loss are accessible to fans through her music and her attitude on stage.
Calling on male members of the crowd to expose themselves as “fuck ass n–ggas,” calling for a moment of silence for her own friend Terrence and audience members’ loved ones lost in acts of violence, and consoling a girl moved to tears (“Don’t cry — your makeup is too fleeky,” she told her), Kehlani welcomed the audience through tribulation and through triumph.
“This is for all my quirky, unusual, weird, different people out here,” Kehlani proudly announced as she paused for a moment before immersing the crowd with the warm, reassuring “Be Alright.” Kehlani’s informal promise that she would be there through the often confusing, ultimately rewarding struggle of being a weirdo resonated with the audience. As the song went on, the crowd gained the courage to sing along with Kehlani, eventually filling in the words to the chorus whenever Kehlani left off.
By the end of the night, it became abundantly apparent that the smoky warmth of Kehlani’s voice had melted away all traces of hesitation from the crowd.
Kehlani’s final goodbye came on an ecstatic note, as Kehlani performed “Distraction,” “CRZY” and “Did I” — all singles from her yet-to-be-released first studio album. Before “CRZY,” the singer paused once again to express her gratitude to her fans. If it wasn’t clear enough already that Kehlani’s success — both in this performance and throughout her entire career — was built on mutual support between her and her fans, here was the absolute proof. Alchemizing subdued eagerness into gleaming enthusiasm is no easy feat, especially when vulnerability is the instrument chosen to catalyze this transformation.
On “Intro” from her 2015 mixtape You Should Be Here, Kehlani meditates on her determination to give a voice to her struggles. “I have to be strong, not for myself but for a greater purpose, because I feel like my duty is far beyond me,” she said. While Kehlani has a way to go before she can perform her duty on a global scale, she succeeded in giving it a platform in her own home in the East Bay.