Royalty is a messy affair. Just as the history of kings and queens is filled with beheadings and double crosses, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Britney Spears's sundry careers are a reminder that battling for the crown can weigh you down. Tinashe won a title of her own in 2014, when she released "2 On" and was promptly recognized as the heir apparent to the pop/R&B throne. This past Saturday night, when the understated diva's Joyride world tour — which has since been canceled — came to Los Angeles's Belasco Theatre, Tinashe's mostly spectacular efforts were thwarted by the continuing delay of her sophomore album.
Tinashe's obvious lodestar is Janet Jackson, who also arrived right on time when pop fans were desperate for a less-is-more diva, a moment of recovery following a decade of pop excess. Similarly, Tinashe strides in the wake of all-frills artists like Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Katy Perry, exuding a carefree sexiness — simple street clothes, a beat, and killer choreography go a long way here. Taking the stage in an elegant, floor-length sleeveless jacket, she posed on a riser, mic in hand — capable and commanding. Opening with the latest single off her forever-forthcoming Joyride, the Metro Boomin-produced "Ride of Your Life," Tinashe had the audience energized. The crowd had waited in line around the block, and roared to the opening bars of “Party Favors.”
She followed with four songs that were wholly unfamiliar to the audience, save for a few heads who had clearly done their due diligence with extensive YouTube research. As strong as the new songs were, and as compelling as Tinashe's stage presence was, trying to get people hyped to a song they don’t know is a task. Tinashe being Tinashe, she managed, but this portion of the show anticipated the issue and soon enough misbegotten graphics began scrolling on a screen behind her, spelling out the lyrics like we were the performers ourselves, drunk in a private room of some Koreatown karaoke spot.
A little more than halfway through the show, as if to distract the audience from the unknown waters we had found ourselves dog-paddling through, Tinashe exacted a dramatic costume change — her third of the night — and returned to the stage in a red bra, panties, and knee-high patent-plastic boots — the classic Frederick’s of Hollywood look. In this moment, she became more withdrawn while performing a faithfully up-tempo cover of Janet’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.” In that moment, she was no longer the performer with limitless energy from moments before. She seemed to shrink, seated on a chair, swallowed up by the lights and thundering beat, nearly naked and dwarfed by the magnitude of the vibe and the show she had created for us up to that point. It was uncomfortable to watch a woman who was powered by incredible, sexual energy moments before strip down and sashay across the stage like a hired entertainer. It seemed like she felt the same way.
Yet over the course of the hour, Tinashe never stopped moving. She twerked, did floorwork like a pro while sliding across the stage on her knees, and kept up with her hard-hitting back-up dancers who did death drops during an extended dance break. Even during a slow jam like "Bet," she was grinding, washed in a pale cerulean stage light, hypnotizing the audience by telling us when to sway, when to shout her name, when to worship her as she deserved. In these moments, it was clear that she's doing more than just invoking Janet. Tinashe slayed, putting on a show that was pure enchantment. It's like the Rhythm Nation is alive and well, unearthed by some scientists off the coast of some distant Equatorial land where it sits with the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Towers of Babylon, and other forgotten Wonders of the World. Her cover of Janet's "That's the Way Love Goes" was a deliberate choice, but it's oddly where Tinashe invoked Janet's precedent the least. Tinashe isn't the soulful, '90s R&B Janet. She's early Janet, vibing to her own satisfaction in front of a warehouse mirror in "The Pleasure Principle."
By the end of the night, when Tinashe took the stage in her sneakers once more, shutting down the Belasco with "All Hands on Deck" and "2 On," we were back in familiar territory. But in the midst of a concert with unfamiliar songs and the heartbreaking knowledge that she's being forced to prove her pop star bona fides to her label (Joyride has been continually delayed), she still feels like an artist on the brink of stardom, like a challenger waiting for her chance to reign.