Named after the crystalline coastal strip in Malibu where Kehlani Parrish recorded much of their third album, ‘Blue Water Road’ is a “glasshouse” diorama of spiritual practice and a commitment to self-love in song form. Across the album’s thirteen tracks Kehlani sounds freer, looser and more centred than ever before – almost as if time spent in solitude has cast out the chaotic vortex which branded much of their pandemic-era release, ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’.
‘Blue Water Road’, almost entirely produced by go-to collaborator Andrew ‘Pop’ Wansel, has an air of wistfulness that at times cedes attention to its downtempo design and dewy-eyed declarations. Still, the album coheres around its sobering exploration of enduring love – be it the romantic or divine kind – adding permanency to Kehlani’s mantra-like calls for clarity and closure in the wake of loss. Kehlani coolly shifts gears between emotional extremes: there’s evident regret laced with a hint of menace on the album’s most bracing and inviting track ‘wish I never’, a throwback hip-hop leaning number that will sate fans of the ‘SweetSexySavage’-era; on ‘Altar’, they light a flame, arching their back in an act of submission – a symbol of near-matrimony made into a touching remembrance that only comes with maturing through the passage of time.
On ‘Blue Water Road’, Kehlani revels comfortably and rapturously in her sexuality – the result is a soft and sensitive account of bodily affection and intimacy not smeared by a power imbalance but by total synergy between lovers. This is a cosy, habitual kind of love Kehlani channels through the quiet storm splendour of the Spanish flecked ‘melt’, an album highlight, and ‘tangerine’, a resplendent mid-tempo with a modulated vocal effect, ripe with not-so-subtle mentions of fragrant aphrodisiacs.
In an album with deftly-placed idiosyncrasies, elastic vocal flexes and heady harmonies draped over lush string arrangements, Kehlani’s sound is elevated from readymade R&B to slow-burning torch songs that drift beyond the immediacy of radio fodder. Shades of chamber pop, folky flourishes and molasses-smooth easy listening gems are a welcome addition to their repertoire; loyalists craving the dark, ambiguous strain of progressive soul Kehlani honed for close to a decade may be left wanting here, but this body of work delicately broadens their musical palette without compromising their rawness or sense of relatability. Kehlani can still be thorny and tempestuous but they’ve also never been more holistic and soulful than on ‘Blue Water Road’.
Closing track ‘wondering/wandering’ featuring Thundercat and daughter Adeya Nomi’s sweet coos, doubles as a monograph on motherhood and an open-ended supplication to life’s ebbs and flows – a genuinely poignant moment without any of the syrupy melodrama. The pledges made to the ones who’ve passed to the Otherside and the chosen family that remain on this earthly plane have softened Kehlani, because of that they forgo pain, torment and noxious attempts at rationalising dysfunctional relationships. Indeed, much of Kehlani’s previous work was predicated around a permissiveness to pain but now, they make something universally tangible of their lifelong hurt, finally allowing the light to seep in.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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