Tinashe lights up Belasco for free gig

Thursday night, downtown Los Angeles was treated to a free show from Tinashe and BJ the Chicago Kid at the Belasco Theater.

Rolling up to the Belasco’s front entrance, I could feel the bass from BJ The Chicago Kid’s set thumping deep in my chest, even from outside the venue.

The free show was a brand activation for Ford, so once inside, there was a highly-Instagrammable neon step-and-repeat-style photo station, and further in, a red Mustang for people to sit in and take pictures. With that in mind, past the initial surprise of seeing a car in the middle of a venue, the crowd seemed relatively oblivious to the branding, and was focused on pushing to the front to see the artists at close range.

In the interest of transparency, BJ the Chicago Kid was new to me before this show. I’d never even heard his name. That said, I was clearly the only one. I’ve almost never seen a crowd so packed and so hyped up for an opener. I’d describe BJ’s sound as R&B-tinged soul hip hop. It’s more smooth and melodic than the super popular mumble rap that’s getting so much radio play these days. BJ has a new album out, titled In My Mind, that he played the majority of during his hour-long set.

In between songs, he name-checked Obama (BJ performed at the former President’s final speech in Chicago) and Childish Gambino just before playing a cover of his smash hit, “Redbone.” The crowd went wild.

He wrapped up just before 9pm, giving the roadies enough time to set up a stacked platform addition to the stage for the woman of the hour.

The lights went down, and a graphic of the moon appeared, “TINASHE” splashed across the screen. The anticipation was palpable. A kid in a Grimes shirt in front of me preemptively gyrated with excitement. I looked up and saw that the ornate inner dome of the Belasco was lit up in sultry blues and deep purples. Finally, she emerged.

First, let’s get the most obvious points out of the way: Tinashe is beautiful and talented. This isn’t particularly surprising because a lot of young, female artists possess that winning combo, but what sets her apart is the fact that she’s able to belt out the impossibly strong vocals her songs require, and perfectly execute complicated, synced up dance moves in tune with her backup dancers, all while never letting her composed stage presence falter for a second. It feels like she’s been doing this forever, and then you remember that she’s only 24.

The show had more of a narrative than I expected. Each song flowed into the next giving the set shape via storytelling, and she managed to tee each one up with an appropriate quip to the audience. Her stage persona feels like a cross between a young, uber-confident Rihanna and the girl you had a huge crush on in high school, and in that way, she was able to fluidly pivot between wholesome (“Flame”) and R-rated (“Company”) in a way that gave me a sense there’s a lot more under the surface.

As is often the case with a lot of free shows, the crowd was really diverse and varied in terms of age, race, gender and orientation, but everyone’s attention was equally rapt. Tinashe started the set with songs off her albums Joyride and 2016’s Nightride mixtape. She introduced a few new songs that she played in the middle of the set, but just when the audience got restless from their inability to sing along, she brought the energy back up with the infectious pop-rhythmic single off Aquarius, “All Hands on Deck.” Closing out the set with an elongated and remixed version of “2 On,” a smiling, glistening Tinashe left it all on the floor.

Words and photos by Stephanie Varela Rheingold