Cheryl Cole has been led astray by her heart. No, not the failed marriage to dastardly footballer Ashley Cole. I mean her love of hip-hop/R&B.
It was the love that dared not speak its name while she was reeling off hits with Girls Aloud, the leading UK girl group of the 2000s. But then Cole, buoyed by her X Factor judging job – charming the nation with her ready recourse to weeping – went solo. Girls Aloud’s pure pop was jettisoned for US R&B-pop, a style to which the Geordie songbird, big of heart but thin of voice, has proved unsuited. Her new album A Million Lights ups the game but the damage has been done: the O2 Arena wasn’t a sell-out for her debut solo tour.
The ensuing show was designed to restore her A-list lustre. Cheryl, as she now brands herself (surnames are so B-list), opened with “Sexy Den a Mutha”, an over-grasping Rihanna knock-off with a title daft even by the standards of the pop charts. The next song, “Call My Name”, also clung desperately to Rihanna, but this time to better effect, Cheryl executing neat dance moves with her squad of backing dancers as a barrage of dance-pop beats rained down.
She didn’t appear to be singing a single note, which gave the action an oddly estranged air. But then came a Girls Aloud medley and an authentically Cherylian lead vocal rang out: reedy but tenacious, in the present tense, not pre-recorded. Cheryl is a notoriously weak singer, but her precariously tuneful tones gave the music a much-needed injection of personality.
The mood shifted towards big power ballads, delivered in approved X Factor fashion with dry ice and a costume change into a flowing-yet-revealing purple outfit, the singer stretching out her hand to implore our approval. It was granted. Years in a girl group have made her an expert stage performer, the sort who responds automatically when a wind machine is turned on: arch spine, throw back head, let mane of hair billow.
Likeable chat (“You. Are. Amazing!”) added warmth to the calculating stagecraft. A guest appearance by the rapper Will.i.am for the duet “3 Words” cast the pair as a budget Jay-Z and Rihanna. At this stage of her career, that’s the best for which Cheryl can hope. This slick, fast-paced production did its job: it kept her in sight of the competition.