Kehlani, Rico Nasty and Destin Conrad perform at the Red Hat Amphitheater
R&B giant Kehlani cast a spell over the Red Hat Amphitheater on Saturday night in a somewhat experimental set aimed primarily at longtime fans.
Resplendent in a series of jagged colorful dresses, the multi-platinum singer – who uses the pronouns “she” and “they” but prefers “they” – pleaded on “little story”, then dismissive on “intermediate shooter”.
As Kehlani strutted through a sultry “every Sunday” power ballad, audiences were transfixed, caught in the ebb and flow of emotions mapped out by the all-female creative team.
The second leg of an extensive tour of North America and Europe, the two-hour show was meticulously choreographed and borders on high-level concept, anchored by footage shot on Kehlani’s tour bus. Throughout, Kehlani’s voice was rich, honeyed and complex, softening to a coo on “melt” just as easily as it sharpened to a heartache on “Open (Passionate)”.
On many tracks, Kehlani was confronted with images of the artist’s own tour bus and flanked by four backup dancers in cargo suits. The dancers had plenty of solo spots to show off their own deep talent, leaning on each other backstage between tracks.
The Grammy-nominated singer brought the crowd into an early part of the show with the album “Blue Water Road.” The mid-section of scorching hits, lit in warm tones with plenty of bird imagery, was presented as a dream sequence ending with a bird hitting the tour bus window.
“I’m still working on my sexy,” Kehlani told the audience as they sang through sultry acrobatics, undulating across the stage floor during “Water,” draped upside down on a staircase for “Hate The Club”.
The final third of the show was washed in acoustic bliss and cool tones evoking the tour’s titular blue water. Here, a few more whimsical tunes were played, ranging from a playful play to “Good Thing” to the show’s closest pop-rock, “CRZY.”
A new take
The real story of the series, however, was one of self-reflection.
Kehlani’s last tour was five years ago, though some fans may have just seen the artist’s set at J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival. Returning to touring has been different than expected, Kehlani said, having grown and changed through COVID-19 and becoming a mother.
Throughout the show, the 27-year-old continued to thank fans for growing up with the singer over the past eight years.
“It’s an honor to be in this space with you, it’s an honor to be here after motherhood,” Kehlani said.
While some artists take their audiences back in time with them as they perform their first songs, Kehlani’s show felt firmly grounded in the present. In a show staged for such deep emotion, sections of “SweetSexySavage” (2017) and “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” (2020) were crafted a bit differently from the original recordings, as if the sheet music was read at through a kaleidoscope.
Angrier tracks like “In My Feelings” and “Nights Like This” fell without a bite – now airier, sadder. Even pleading for bedroom jams like “Change Your Life” and “Distraction,” which Kehlani challenged fans to identify near the end of the show, turned playful under the smoldering fire.
The show gave listeners an overview of how Kehlani’s relationship with romance has changed.
Kehlani came out as a lesbian in 2021, and the relationships depicted through the album aren’t just more tender and tentative than the stormy, steamy adventures of their sophomore album — they’re also more openly queer.
But Kehlani has been quietly weaving queer images into pieces for years. This was underscored at Saturday’s gig with a silky rendition of “In My Feelings” – a song about unrequited slow burn – followed by a gender-reversed version on the fierce breakup ballad “Nunya”.
Additionally, “Blue Water Road” was produced while Kehlani was falling in love, and the singer worked hard to bring audiences into the fold.
“I’ve grown a lot,” Kehlani said. “I learned a lot about love, I fell in love. But I just want to say, if you have something special, don’t play with it.
Kehlani encouraged the audience to show up, talk to the people around them and was delighted to see two fans in the front row flirting.
Later, Kehlani came off stage to serenade a young queer couple face-to-face for the first half of “melt,” a bright and warm love song about the vulnerable intimacy of bonding with a new flame.
“I would like to dedicate this to all forms of lovers,” Kehlani said.
Decked out in a screen-printed miniskirt and glittering skull necklace, opener Rico Nasty was an instant crowd favorite.
Nasty’s style of music is notoriously difficult to describe. She raps at the top of her voice in a high, hoarse cry, and the end of her sentences flies away before falling back into a growl.
The 25-year-old, born Maria-Cecilia Simone Kelly in Washington, calls her own style “sugar trap,” according to DJ Booth, and the unique sound translates well live.
Although she leaned heavily on a backing track while dancing through tracks like “Intrusive” and “Watch Your Man,” Nasty went all out on crowd favorites like “Tia Tamera” and “ Blackpunk”.
His daring range of aggressive, carefree rap anthems were sapped with delight as Nasty chatted with the audience between songs, grinning big behind a raised hand. She sang a verse of “Vaderz” a cappella with the crowd and even paused between “Blow Me” and “Rage” to serenade a fan with a slightly offbeat rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“I’m enjoying that vibe,” Nasty told Raleigh after a wild, raucous ride through “Gotsta Get Paid,” jumping onto an acid green lit stage. “You guys are really, really, really, really fun.”
Nasty may have been the opener for the tour, and on one of its first stops to get started, but the whole thing felt less like an introduction and more like a victory lap.
Before Rico took the stage, rising R&B singer Destin Conrad rocked the crowd with a shortened set. The 22-year-old Florida native is a longtime friend of Kehlani’s, and throughout filming, Kehlani jokingly referred to him as their firstborn.
On “DAY PARTY,” released just two days before the show, Conrad seemed lost in thought, his dancing loose and fluid. Under golden skies and scorching sun as fans crowded together in the Red Hat Amphitheater, the tune-in felt a lot like a summer party.
His buttery, soaring vocals also lent themselves well to “Life is Changing” and “Unpredictable, with crisp lyrics and slowed-down beats you could drift off to. While Rico Nasty’s set was a hype machine for the crowd , Conrad’s was more relaxing and reflective.
Later that night, Kehlani took him on stage for a smoky, well-received duet on their joint track “Open (Passionate)”, saying “It’s what I listen to every day. It’s my favorite artist.
“more than I should”
“Open (passionate)” [with Destin Conrad]
“Language of Love”
“Peace of mind”
“I hate the club”
“I would never”
“up at night”
“You Should Be Here”
“In My Feelings”
“Change Your Life”
“Nights Like This”
Rico Nasty’s setlist
“Smack A B—-”
“Watch Your Man”
“I must be paid”
“One in 5”
This story was originally published July 31, 2022 6:06 p.m.