When the young singer-songwriter Khalid played “Coaster,” the last song of his set Friday night at the BET Experience at Staples Center, he stood in front of a digitally chopped graphic of the American flag.
For a second, it looked like a glitch in the onstage projection. But as Khalid sang over the song’s ambient piano chords, it was clear that the single was a kind of eulogy.
The song’s lyrics are meant for an ex-lover. But the cut took on rather mournful undertones at the BET Experience, especially in light of months of racial unrest, a divisive election season and the not-guilty verdict in the fatal shooting of black motorist Philando Castile during a traffic stop near St. Paul, Minn.
“I gave you my all, I showed the proof of your lies/ And you weren’t worth it, you don’t deserve me,” Khalid sang. “Coaster” is a beautiful ballad, but when he performed it Friday, he had the weight of history on his shoulders.
It was one of a few political moments at the show, perhaps the most sonically gentle night of the weekend-long festival.
But Friday’s set showed the festival’s range, veering from Khalid’s indie-minded R&B to au courant trap-crooning from Bryson Tiller and a hit-packed but messy set from DJ Khaled.
The night was intentionally a mixed bag of modern sounds, but most acts — save the headliner — leaned toward introspection and reserve.
Rising R&B singer H.E.R. and the duo They made a case that guitars aren’t dying — they’re just being reinvented by young women and people of color who exist outside the usual confines of today’s rock ‘n’ roll. Songs like H.E.R.’s “Every Kind of Way” had a moodiness and atmosphere that defined the night.
Jidenna’s balmy single “Classic Man” received a wonderfully dragged-out remix in “Moonlight,” and though his set didn’t evoke that movie’s radical pastel haze, he did make subtle overtures to the BET Experience’s sense of purpose. “Long live me, long live you, long live black people,” he said to raucous applause as he riffed on anecdotes from his Nigerian background and called his band into a lovely a cappella interlude.
Khalid had a well-attended set last week at the Santa Monica Pier, but that didn’t at all dampen the young enthusiasm for his appearance Friday. Teens spun in the aisles as he sang about high school heartbreak, with an ear for sad-eyed synthetic tones and guitar-shredding urgency. Whatever fans have missed during Frank Ocean’s long absence from L.A. stages, Khalid delivered something more than comparable — it was the most of-the-moment set of the night.
That rich ambience and looseness with genre also defined Jhene Aiko’s and Bryson Tiller’s sets near the close of the show. Aiko’s songs like “Maniac” are alluring and narcotic, but she sings them with an assertiveness that stands out on pop and R&B radio. Tiller’s mix of hard-hitting trap drums and sing-speak vocals were a little more pointed, but they each spoke to a welcome openness about how R&B and hip-hop are blending in natural, innovative ways today.
For all the control and focus of the night’s earlier sets, only DJ Khaled’s show threatened to spin out. The producer and Snapchat motivational figure as well as the most enthusiastic new parent in rap could never have appeared in any era but our own — he doesn’t perform music so much as saunter onto stages and supercharge them with his presence.
It makes for perhaps the sloppiest live show in contemporary music — he rarely gets through 30 seconds of even his biggest hits, and his reliance on special guests renders him weirdly irrelevant at his own sets. But it’s hard to totally hate a guy who will give up his headlining Staples Center show to Bell Biv Devoe and 21 Savage cameos alike. Even when the Staples stage preemptively started turning around before he finished his last song, it was a little endearing.
As a diversion from all the American malaise right now, Friday’s show was welcome and needed.
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