Kehlani’s Grammy-nominated mixtape ‘You Should Be Here’ introduced the world to her own brand of stoned-out, soul cuts that invoked the wistful haze of ‘90s and early noughties R&B, albeit for a new generation of online stalwarts. In the intervening years, Kehlani could not have foreseen the intense media glare she’d be subjected to, as she dealt with bouts of depression and anxiety.
The release of ‘SweetSexySavage’ must therefore feel like a dose of euphoric retribution for Kehlani; the record reflecting (if not fully delving into) those sensitivities. The dark and hedonistic prototype is substituted for a positive, defiant one, where Kehlani swaggers around those lows with a raw braggadocio as refreshing as anything released in contemporary music today.
On ‘SweetSexySavage’, Kehlani navigates with ease both the street and pop lanes. Lanes she occupies with the same vim and attention to zeitgeists the way Drake has. Embodying the experiences of millennial females through songs that feel both reminiscent but never beholden to nostalgia, she manages to substantiate the hype that has followed her since her mixtape days. Cuts are introduced by spoken word intros from women who have shaped Kehlani’s consciousness — injecting personal skits and building on the perspective of the modern woman.
Indeed, Kehlani’s own lyrical anecdotes and her role as a voyeuristic observer are integral to her brand. ‘Not Used To It’ is all wide-eyed innocence, conceding the neon-lights and infamy is something that will take time getting used to, the number augmented by Kehlani’s silky rap-sung flow. ‘Keep On’ showcases Kehlani’s rift-abundant, honeyed vocals over a funk-driven bassline, featuring Daft Punk quirks as the track draws to a close. The message is not to spread yourself too thin when in love, the process of self-actualisation the necessary precursor for true fulfilment. That is the moniker that pervades much of the record — self-love and healing.
‘SweetSexySavage’ is mostly comprised of trap-lite, hip-hop beats and undulating bass, a prevailing sound of the last year or so. The production can at times become repetitive, yet it’s Kehlani’s versatility as a songstress that elevates the more cookie cutter numbers. She traverses the slinkier, in-the-boudoir vibe and locked groove on ‘Personal’, to the casual relationship chatter of ‘Distraction’ featuring the LP’s most ear-wormy harmonic refrain. Kehlani can switch up the mood at the click of her tattooed fingers. On ‘Everything Is Yours’, she questions the motives of her man and her own self-worth, even if she’s still willing to take the leap of faith. The production is sparse and spacey, giving her vocal room to filter through. It’s a welcome respite from the heady production that characterises much of the 17 tracks on offer.
Still, Kehlani is most comfortable when she’s her most abrasive and cutting, challenging her counterparts as she glides over Pop & Oak manufactured beats. On ‘Too Much’, straddling a warbling bassline, she lists her many credentials, declaring her lover won’t find a better alternative. It’s a track that invokes the audacity of Beyoncé’s ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, Kehlani propping herself up in the face of infidelity.
‘SweetSexySavage’ will most definitely sate the hunger of her fervent followers. It’s a glossy record that reincarnates the harmonies and textures of Brandy’s ‘Afrodisiac' and Aaliyah’s self-titled, two records in the pantheon of R&B that fused nuanced, progressive production with biting feminine confessionals. Kehlani doesn’t mince her words — the record a very honest account of her experiences. One that will inevitably resonate with receptive young women trying to find their own respective paths in an unforgiving world. From this vantage point, they might not get a better soundtrack to dance away their troubles to this year.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
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