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Review: Mahalia @ O2 Academy

A night of R&B rhythms, soulfulness, and female empowerment- Mahalia’s gig was powerful, bold, and raw, both vocally and emotionally.

By Izzy Fraser, Second Year English

The sold-out show, night 6 of her In Real Life tour, harboured an unforgettable performance. The Leicester born singer-songwriter’s second album is her most vulnerable release to date, translated onto stage through her honest and authentic presence. She guided us through the seamless set by introducing each song in a way that was often humorous but always honest, letting us in on the personal stories that shaped her song writing. Her unseriousness was met with a deep sense of feeling, and as such, Mahalia came across as one of the most down-to-earth artists I have ever had the pleasure of watching perform.

From first signing to Atlantic Records at the age of 13, to releasing her first project ‘Diary of Me’ in 2016, her breakthrough in the 2017 viral video of hit track ‘Sober’, and 2019 BRITs and Grammy nominations for best R&B performance, Mahalia’s rise within the music industry has been a journey to say the least. Throughout the gig, she spoke on what the IRL album meant to her, explaining it was a significant turning point. Writing the album amidst the pandemic and post traumatic break-up, the process was one of heavy emotions and a strong sense of self-reflection.

Kicking off the evening was the smooth vocals (and moves) of No Guidance, old school R&B boy band from London. This group have been gaining increasing popularity on many social media platforms… and for good reason. The vocal blend, classic 90s R&B feel and combination of original tracks and covers ('Snooze' by SZA comes to mind as a crowd favourite) set the perfect scene. It gave the audience a taste of the sexy soulfulness to come from Mahalia, and by the end of their set the energy in the venue was electric.

Mahalia @ O2 Academy | Izzy Fraser

The moment that Mahalia walked onstage, the energy in the room shifted. Elated fans sung ‘Ready’ back to the artist, her opening song setting the theme of self-improvement characteristic of IRL. She followed with the fan-favourite ‘Simmer’, released on her 2019 album Love and Compromise. Interspersing older music within her set was something the artist spoke on when introducing herself, saying 'I’ve definitely […] gone to see an artist I love and they’ve just put out a new album and they only play the new album and I leave fuming, so I haven’t done that.'

She introduced ‘Isn’t it Strange’, explaining how when she moved to London, what she regarded as important changed. Her velvety, rich vocals and physical embodiment of the song through smooth dance moves created a captivating performance that shone with confidence. Next was ‘Plastic Plants’; the singer stated how she’s 'very much a lover girl […] I’m always searching for some kind of love I can hold onto.'

The artists performance of ‘Cheat’ flipped this idea onto its head to… well, basically saying a big 'f*** you' to any man who doesn’t treat you right. It was in this track that Mahalia’s signature R&B riffs and soulful tones were truly exemplified. The second track from her album features Jojo, early 2000’s R&B artist, and draws inspiration from Brandy and Monica’s ‘The Boy is Mine’ (1998). This song and her soulful performance of it are demonstrative of her identity as an R&B artist and her passion the genre that she sees as “highly underrated” in the British music scene.

Mahalia @ O2 Academy | Izzy Fraser

Empowering the crowd further, the artist discussed the importance of confidence and ‘feeling yourself’. She explained writing the next song ‘In My Bag’ was a moment to celebrate herself and say ‘I am that bitch’. Mahalia’s domination of the stage and captivation of the audience was ever-present through this track, along with ‘Do Not Disturb’.

Mahalia’s versatility in song writing was evident in that stripped-back ‘Lose Lose’, encapsulated heartbreak that evoked a stillness in the audience, yet the following song ‘Letter To Ur Ex’ was a complete bad bitch anthem that got the whole crowd on their feet singing along. This contrast that the artist achieved was, in my opinion, one of the most impressive aspects of the gig.

‘IRL’, the titular song of the album, was the climax of the evening, not least as the artist explained she was dedicating this song to her parents, revealing that they were in the crowd. The lyrics ‘I just want to see in real life what it is when I close my eyes’ summarised the personal change and self-expression that Mahalia spoke of throughout the evening. The way in which this visualisation became a reality as the crowd sung with the artist ‘I love it when you sing to me’ was extremely poignant. These strong emotions were continued into her next song, ‘Sober’ that she vulnerably accompanied with guitar, and ‘Hey Stranger’, a song she had not yet performed on tour, explaining it was a ‘difficult one’ for her. ‘November’ (which features Stormzy on the album) maintained this down-beat, emotional atmosphere.

Mahalia @ O2 Academy | Izzy Fraser

The vibes were lifted for the closing part of the evening by ‘What’s Up’, ‘What You Did’, ‘Terms and Conditions’ and ‘Wish I Missed my Ex’, the final song in particular sending palpable vibrations through the crowd. Before exiting the stage, the artist told fans to “Walk into every room with confidence. You are it”. She also reassured fans “You never have to wear a f***ing bra in your life”, which was received by enthusiastic cheers from the audience.

Overall, Mahalia was ethereal on stage, showcasing stunning vocals and exuding confidence unmatched. It felt as if she held the attention of the crowd in the palm of her hand. The ‘In Real Life’ UK and Europe tour is not one to miss and will finish on the 4th of November 2023.

Featured Image: Izzy Frazer

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