When Kehlani took the stage for their headlining set at Leader Bank Pavilion on Friday, the sold-out crowd snapped to attention — attendees who hadn’t yet arrived at their seats made a break for it down the aisles, and those who were in their spots stood up to honor the 27-year-old singer-songwriter. Since the Oakland native’s first album, 2017′s “SweetSexySavage,” their strikingly personal, yet robust-sounding take on modern R&B has distinguished itself with its homespun feel and disarmingly honest lyrics about love’s ups, downs, and sublime moments, and it’s helped them amass a passionate fanbase.
In April Kehlani released “blue water road,” an intricately arranged collection of ruminative songs that contemplate modern romance; the songs don’t always arrive at answers, but their gently prodding poetry and Kehlani’s airy voice make the process of self-reflection even more rewarding. On “more than I should,” Kehlani ponders straying from an inattentive lover over synth hiccups that recall the framework of Ginuwine’s similarly lustful 1996 cut “Pony”; on “melt,” looped guitar arpeggios add buoyancy to Kehlani’s giddy descriptions of first-blush love (“Wish I could build me a cute apartment/one-bedroom right where your heart is,” they sigh). Even when the emotions are heavy, the musical vibe is free-flowing and light, with Kehlani’s wandering journeys along the paths of motherhood, coming out, and immersing themselves in spirituality adding to the songs’ openness.
Live, Kehlani is a confident performer, delicately balancing the close-knit nature of their songs with the amphitheater-tour imperative to make the back row feel their performance as deeply as those up front. Bolstered by four dancers and a punchy band that included guitarist Lexii Lynn, who tossed off a few pyrotechnic solos, as well as piano and string players who intensified the musical drama here and there, Kehlani played the bulk of “blue water road” while also giving makeovers to older songs (which they turned into a guess-this-cut game with the audience) and breathing new life into cuts like the New Edition-flipping “In My Feelings.”
Near the end of their set, Kehlani gave a short soliloquy on their philosophy of love: “Do not play with it,” they said. “Represent it. Uplift it … it is the greatest thing that you can have on this planet.” With “blue water road” and its attendant tour, Kehlani has proven how that emotion — and the vulnerability and tenderness that it can engender — can result in powerful, and sometimes even surprising, art.
With Rico Nasty and Destin Conrad. At Leader Bank Pavilion, Friday.