Armed with lasers, smoke and a couple of electric fans blowing wind through her hair, Tinashe layered on the pop-diva show business in her performance Thursday night, a hometown stop on the L.A.-based soul singer’s tour.
The out-front display at El Rey Theatre – not to mention the volume and heft of the music – represented a surprising shift from her excellent debut “Aquarius,” last year’s ooziest, most internally oriented R&B album. It’s a sensual, slow-moving set with echoes of Aaliyah and Janet Jackson but little in common with today’s up-tempo club jams.
“Just when they think that they know me, I switch it up,” Tinashe sang in the hourlong concert during “Stunt.” A track from one of several Internet mixtapes that first established a following for this 21-year-old La Crescenta native, the song wasn’t lying.
You couldn’t really blame her for feeling amped-up. Last year Tinashe scored a huge radio hit – some called it the song of the summer -- with “2 On,” her mesmerizing collaboration with producer DJ Mustard. It even attracted the attention of Drake, who recorded his own version – potent validation for a former child actress with a history of middling success.
And maybe she was simply using Thursday’s gig to test out the bigger moves she’ll need later this year opening arena shows for Iggy Azalea.
Whether the change was justified or not, though, Tinashe’s in-your-face approach felt like a misstep, one that diminished the unique appeal of the music on “Aquarius” and only made the singer seem more similar to her R&B peers: Rihanna, for instance, in the swaggering “Boss,” or Beyoncé in the booming “Bet.”
At times her big vocals and borrowed poses called to mind Christina Milian, who after connecting with listeners in the early ’00s has since floundered, a strong voice in search of a distinctive sound.
Tinashe’s stage setup – a drummer playing along to prerecorded tracks – didn’t help, particularly during each of the drummer’s almost absurdly high-powered solos. He was bulking up the music without deepening or widening it the way a live band might have.
What made the show especially vexing is that Tinashe has shown she’s capable of scaling up in certain circumstances. She’s great in the thumping remix of Nick Jonas’ “Jealous,” an appealingly lusty duet between two artists eager to shed some of their youthful wholesomeness.
And Tinashe was clearly having a ball at El Rey when her DJ dropped “No Type,” the heavy but hypnotic rap hit by the young sibling duo Rae Sremmurd. Moving to the syrupy beat along with her four dancers, she was tapped into the right combination of strength and grace.
After “No Type” she went into “Pretend,” a song about how seductive self-deception can be, and for a few minutes the music had some of the heady tenderness it has on “Aquarius.”
But then the track erupted into a bludgeoning retro-’90s dance break. The time for contemplation was over.