K. Michelle’s confessional, warts-and-all style was on full display Tuesday at the House of Blues in West Hollywood during the singer’s first headlining tour. The capacity crowd -- mostly female -- was ready to bask in her cathartic and painstakingly unfiltered tunes of sex, heartache and self-love.
But it wasn't long ago that Michelle was a virtual unknown. When her debut album, “Rebellious Soul,” opened at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 earlier this year, it was a surprise to many in the industry, especially considering she had no radio hits or major co-signs. What's more, it was the highest debut for a female R&B singer since 2011.
The 27-year-old singer from Memphis, Tenn., built a fan base using old and new models: mix tapes and a reality show.
As a cast member of VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta,” the rising singer capitalized on the show’s immense following. A spin-off of the popular New York-based docu-soap in which slapping, drink throwing, hair pulling and tear-soaked melodrama were ever-present, Michelle stood above her shade-throwing castmates.
The singer wasn’t entirely immune to the messy drama -- she was often squarely in the center of the action armed with a brash temper -- but her raw talent and storyline turned viewers into fans. Proof? Many of the hundreds of thousands of tweets each episode logged (the show routinely dominated Twitter) were Michelle quotes.
Like that of any relevant female R&B singer, Michelle’s appeal lies in her connection with the female spirit, and fans especially sympathized with her back story.
An earlier record deal and collaborations with R. Kelly, Missy Elliott and Trina showed promise of a fruitful career. But her rise stalled courtesy of a physically abusive relationship with a producer/manager and drama with her label (she admits she played a healthy role in the fallout with her old label).
“Love & Hip-Hop” showed Michelle's struggle to heal those wounds and finally break into music. She didn’t shy from airing her dirty laundry, and her pained past conjures the pathos of singers such as Mary J. Blige, Keyshia Cole, Fantasia and Monica -- the latter three all launched hit albums from successful reality shows at some point in their careers.
For viewers, “Rebellious Soul” was a tangible product of the resilience and survival she displayed on the show -- something two seasons of a hit reality show made very easy to market.
Backed by a six-piece band at the House of Blues on Tuesday, Michelle moved through the hourlong set with the same conviction that packed the disk.
She didn’t need to offer up many in-between missives about the tracks she was performing, and when she did speak the crowd of women -- many of whom opted to mimic Michelle’s body framing catsuit, to varying results -- drowned her out with their screams and praises.
Plenty of confessional R&B singers before her have turned the concert-going experience into a church sermon. It's commonplace in a genre in which so many voices are molded through gospel, and Michelle, despite her sassy brazenness, was no exception.
Tunes such as the slinky “When I Get A Man” and the declarative “My Life” were amplified by the call and response that rung out between the performer and the crowd. Even the naughty, unabashedly explicit slow-burner “Pay My Bills” -- which would make a listener groan with discomfort if they weren’t privy to her disdain for boundaries -- elicited finger-snapping approval and catcalls.
Tuesday's show, and the crowd's unwavering adoration of the singer, will make great fodder for the cameras that were rolling during the night -- this time for her own VH1 show. Smartly played.