I love R&B music. Lord knows I do, since being exposed to Destiny’s Child, 702, Aaliyah and a little channel called BET growing up in the early 2000s. Unless it happened to be on the radio, a Now That’s What I Call Music album or BET’s 106 and Park, rap was a no-no. Mom wouldn’t buy me albums that carried the parental advisory (explicit content) sticker, and it was typically rap albums. So 50 Cent’s 2003 Get Rich Or Die Tryin album was a no. Most R&B albums at that time didn’t have profanity in it from what I can remember. So I’m always eager to next biggest thing in the genre. Preferably whose R&B music is authentic and not whitewashed when it shouldn’t be. Ariana Grande has the perfect pipes for R&B, but I’m sure her record label and management feel it’s more commercially economical to have her sing R&B-sounding pop and EDM music that will guarantee her mainstream success. The biggest problem for R&B — for at least the first couple years in this decade — just wasn’t popular anymore. I swear this was the case from 2010-2014. Mainstream pop was taken over by EDM and EDM-influenced pop music. Another major problem found is that “Black R&B acts, especially women, don’t get priority at major label anymore” unless you’re Beyonce or Rihanna (and Nicki Minaj even though she’s a rapper) whose music get’s questioned by R&B lovers on if it’s “really R&B.” When you don’t get priority on the major label, it’s unlikely that you’ll become a superstar. Sevyn Streeter performed (and slayed) at our school back in February, and while she isn’t Bey or Rih-status, she should very much be.
Now enters in Kehlani. I hear about her in 2014 (maybe early 2015) through a former classmate who played her music while we were driving who even knew her personally. At the time, Kehlani was very much still an underground artist with some buzz floating around. She played her Cloud 19 EP, which I didn’t like except for one song. However, it was the songs I didn’t like, but it was her voice caught my attention. Kehlani carries a raspy-chilly voice, a mixture of sing-talking (what Bryson Tiller does) and can belt tunes very well. When she dropped her You Should Be Here mixtape, I officially loved her as an artist and a songwriter. Her songs felt very raw; like they were from the heart. I was afraid when she announced that she would be signing with major label Atlantic Records just out of thought her music whitewashed for watered down for mainstream listeners. Like The Weeknd post-2012.
With the release of the SweetSexySavage album, this wasn’t the case. The music felt just the same if not better. Yes, it’s R&B, but it’s R&B with a witchy-edge to it. The album I feel is designed to lead the way in modern R&B. Keep the roots (for Kehlani’s generation it’s the 90s) but move with the times of musical innovation which is currently on a trap-influenced wave. Lyrically, she is defiant, vulnerable, sweet but also confident (have you heard Too Much). I’ve been listening to the album non-stop since it’s release.
Outside of her music, Kehlani’s appearance coupled with background make her unique. For a female urban R&B artist, she has an unusual appearance aesthetic. She has tattoos all over her body (including her face), a septum ring, unpredictable hairstyles (from a Caesar-inspired haircut to hair dyed blue) and by appearance comes off as racially ambiguous to the average person. She identifies as a person of color (one of her songs is called Niggas): “African American, Caucasian, Native American, Spanish, and Filipino Native American” according to her website. (Note that I showed my 8-year-old nephew her album cover to which he said: “she looks like an elf” #Savage). What comes to most people’s minds when they think of a female urban R&B artist (post-1990s) is an African American woman. A melanin beauty queen (think Aaliyah or Ashanti) with luscious brown skin and straight hair (maybe braids or cornrows sometimes).
As far as the latter goes, I connected with Kehlani on a personal level as a young person going through many hardships before the age of twenty-two. Although I grew up more socio-economically privileged than Kehlani, I had dealt with depression, anxiety, the lack of men in my family and a desire to leave my town. I had, even more, sympathy for her when she attempted suicide after PartyNextDoor posted a pic of her on Instagram insinuating that she cheated on NBA player Kyrie Irving with him causing trolls and backlashers to attack Kehlani. Chris Brown even went as far as to make fun of her suicide attempt which made me dislike him even more than I already (low-key) do. As someone who’s been down the road before, suicide attempts are never something that should be joked about ever. Maybe it’s the drugs that Chris Brown was, or he just likes to talk to be talking, but it was plain deplorable.
It made me for a moment about how millennials forget that each of us is all human who will make mistakes but shouldn’t be automatically burned (figuratively) on the cross for it.
Finally this year her life has come full circle. SweetSexySavage opened up at No. 3 on the top 200. Now could she use more radio play?….issa yes. I’m still surprised her second single “Distraction” stalled at No. 85 on the pop charts and hasn’t even reached R&B/Hip-Hop’s top 20. The hook is insanely catchy and pays homage to the R&B music that came out in the year 2000.
Still, Kehlani continues to receive rave reviews especially after her performance at this years’ Coachella. She even steps out her day job to promote mental health, encouraging young girls out there, helping the less-fortunate and making unapologetically making political statements. Throughout it all, she’s been nothing but down to earth.
I don’t see Kehlani getting Hollywood-ized as her more and more people continue to take notice.
Female artists in urban contemporary music don’t get the same attention their male counterparts get from their label or even the success. And Rihanna and Beyonce could do but so much to as they drop album cycles every 3 or 4 years. Look at the current week’s (June 7th) Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart (where there are only two women) it’s basically a boys club.
Kehlani and TDE-signed artist SZA (who dropped CTRL on Friday) could be the antidote. Support them, guys! Support them!
*Also Hold Me By the Heart will be my wedding song guys*
Also R&B singer Tinashe spoke to the Guardian yesterday and this to say about the lack of successful black females in the music industry:
“Recently, my cousin was with a friend of a friend, who was in high school, and she was like: ‘I’m a fan of Kehlani,’ but in a way that was like, ‘So I can’t be a fan of Tinashe, too.’ Then my friend posed the question, ‘Why not be a fan of both?’ It’s kind of like a sport; people feel like they have to pick a side.” Suddenly she springs forward, her default laid-back demeanor temporarily out of the window. “There are hundreds of [male] rappers that all look the same, that sound the same, but if you’re a black woman, you’re either Beyoncé or Rihanna. It’s very, very strange.”