There's never any telling for sure who becomes famous in this crazy world, but if Vegas were taking bets, the wagers would be stacked in Kehlani's favor. And after a stellar hour-and-a-half set at Slim's on Sunday night to a sold-out crowd, fame for the East Bay native seems even more of a foregone conclusion.
Consider Kehlani's fans, who presented bouquets of flowers at her arrival to the stage, and who sang along, loudly, to every word of her songs. Consider Kehlani herself, with the wardrobe of Aaliyah, the choreography of Beyoncé and the heart of Lauryn Hill. Consider the club's bartenders and other staff at the show, and the look on their faces that asked: Who is this girl?
Kehlani Parrish is a 20-year-old R&B singer and songwriter whose Oakland upbringing wasn't always easy. At a young age, her father was murdered, and later, her mother bounced in and out of jail with drug problems. Singing gave her an escape, and in her early teens she fronted a group assembled by Dwayne Wiggins from Tony Toni Toné called PopLyfe. (Even at a young age, Kehlani's stage presence was irresistible; after their performance at Oakland's Malcolm X Festival in 2009, this reviewer stated that she was “destined to be a household name someday.”)
PopLyfe enjoyed national TV exposure in 2011 on America's Got Talent, eventually finishing in fourth place. Later, locked into a contractural obligation, Kehlani worked lousy jobs and couch-surfed, eventually hooking up with Richmond's hip-hop collective HBK Gang. When America's Got Talent host Nick Cannon called to see what she was up to, he offered studio time, resulting in her free mixtape Cloud 19 in 2014, followed by You Should Be Here in 2015.
Insert a move to L.A., a Jay-Z co-sign, a Selena Gomez shout-out, an Atlantic Records deal and a sold-out national tour, and that's the basic story so far. What doesn't get captured in dates and names, though, is Kehlani's confident-yet-relatable personality. Born a mix of black, white, Native American, Latino and Filipino, and having dated both boys and girls, Kehlani's ace in the hole is an instantly universal honesty that never feels forced.
At Slim's, though she commanded the crowd with party rockers befitting a hometown show, the set's highlight was “The Letter,” a piano ballad dedicated to her largely absent mother that asks, plainly, why she was even born: “If you weren't gonna guide me, why bring me into the light?” Kehlani sang, to hushed silence, “Must have done something to make you want to run and hide / Why oh why didn't you just live your life?”
After musical director Jahaan Sweet finished the final chords, and the crowd erupted, Kehlani held a fist to her chest. “I need you to understand how positive that is!” she said. “That we're all a group of young people, being positive in the Bay Area, singing those words!”
The 26-song set included a guest turn by Ambré Perkins on a cover of Drake “Preach," as well as a 10-minute intermission taken over by Shmoplife hitmaker Kool John and a crew of nine stage-crashers. But the stage belonged largely to Kehlani, her two backup dancers, and her emotive songs. Unlike Keyshia Cole, another Oakland-raised R&B singer with a hood-to-Hollywood story but whose musical output has grown more formulaic over time, Kehlani has an arsenal of personal, heartfelt material: “Bright,” a laid-back, swinging you-are-beautiful affirmation; “First Position,” which guides an unsure female lover into the sheets; “FWU,” a lively celebration of monogamy; and current hit “The Way,” a slow-burning, Chance-the-Rapper-featuring earworm that at Slim's elicited a sustained eruption of adoring screams.
In time, Kehlani will put out a formal debut album. She'll tour without prerecorded backing tracks, the only drawback of her set Sunday night. She'll surely play larger theaters. But she's already got what all the industry training in the world can't provide -- an indomitable spirit, the type that was on display while her squirtgun-toting road crew doused the crowd during the show's jubilant four-on-the-floor closer, “Alive.”
“If you know my story, you know you can come from one thing, and turn it into something beautiful,” Kehlani said before leaving the stage. “And it's a blessing to come back here and share this with y'all.”