Kehlani: The New Voice of Pop?
Kehlani Parrish holds nothing back on her much anticipated debut album, SweetSexySavage. Pulling from ’90s R&B and pop influences like Destiny’s Child and Aaliyah, Kehlani packs an aggressive punch for her haters, while teasing and seducing her followers with raw vocals and unapologetic lyrics. The album opens with 22-year-old Reyna Biddy reciting a poem she wrote for Kehlani. Lines such as, “the truth is I’m a superwoman / and some days I’m an angry woman / and some days I’m a crazy woman,” pair perfectly with the journey on which SweetSexySavage takes its listeners.
Opening track “Keep” kicks off the album with a mid-tempo thumping rhythm and lyrics about a lover that Kehlani can’t seem to let go despite being treated unfairly. On the follow up track and album’s second single, “Distraction,” Kehlani slides into a saucy hip-hop-inspired flow that takes romance off the table and broaches the subject of hook-up culture casually. We are soon back to the subject of toxic relationships and how they’ve shaped Kehlani on the anthem “Piece of Mind.” Then we are reminded of the 2016 drama swirling around her break-up with NBA star Kyrie Irving and make up with ex PARTYNEXTDOOR on the hook for “Undercover.”
Kehlani comes into her own on “CRZY” and “Personal,” with a reminder not to sleep on her talent. “CRZY” was the first single off the album, produced by pop and R&B duo Novawav, scoring her recognition on Top 40 and Rhythmic radio. The singer brings sexy back for “Do You Dirty.” It brings flashbacks to the “Piece of Mind” concept with the provocative lyrics, “I ain’t no wifey, ain’t gon’ hold you down / it’s way more fun to be the mistress / I know I’m not like other bitches,” but the song remains one-note and lacks a much needed climax. “Escape” opens acoustically on guitar for a classic R&B sound, building at the chorus with overlapping harmonies and riffs, tipping her hat to girl groups everywhere. “Too Much” is backed by funky beats reminiscent of Brandy’s glory days and pairs well with the next track, “Get Like,” with quirky bass instrumentals not too dissimilar from SZA’s “HiiiJack.” Kehlani then breathes new life into New Edition’s “If This Isn’t Love” on “In My Feelings.”
Raw vocals shine on “Hold Me By The Heart.” The ballad hits the emotional chord SSS had been missing, with a pivotal key change that leaves listeners wanting more. The beats come back strong on “I Wanna Be.” The production by Pop & Oak screams influence derivative of Tinashe, but the lyrics are undoubtably Kehlani’s as she plays with the idea of a lasting relationship. “Gangsta” sizzles with a vampy beat that doubles as homage to the toxic love affair portrayed in Oscar-nominated Suicide Squad, and as the concluding track that encompasses the trio of personalities on SweetSexySavage.
While Kehlani’s lyrics are very much her own, we’re left to ponder whether her influences took the spotlight instead. With Aaliyah being channeled on “Personal” and “Advice” and the album title playing on TLC’s CrazySexyCool, it’s hard to claim uniqueness. The Oakland native emulates ’90s nostalgia and it’s no surprise the album debuted at Number 1 on Billboard’s R&B Albums chart. With an attitude like Halsey and vocals that rival Alessia Cara, there is definitely a spot for Kehlani in this new age of pop music. SweetSexySavage delivers like a diary, with a sincere message to women that they are stronger than their flaws; and while perhaps fickle in love, Kehlani is seamless in her vocal delivery.