As a woman in a male-dominated music industry, they always want to back you into a corner and force you to wear a label. Unfortunately, that means you either fall into one of two categories: sexy or cute. But why not both? Now more than ever we need that reminder that as women we can be in more than one category. Being sexy doesn’t make you a b***h and being cute doesn’t make you someone’s doormat. Luckily, Kehlani dropped her highly-anticipated major label album SweetSexySavage, and it is exactly the project that R&B deserves — a reminder women need that it’s okay to check all of the labels off.
Of course R&B influences like Aaliyah, TLC and Rihanna were perfect examples of what happens when you step out of the lines. But Kehlani sets her own tone, mixing unique compositions that experiment with the retro styles of 90s R&B and modern sonics, and revealing lyrical content that goes beyond what you’d expect from an artist who’s already lived out her relationships and most private moments in front of her combined 3 million followers on social media.
On her debut album, the 21-year-old songstress settles into her own. She shows her vulnerabilities, her strengths, accepts her flaws and displays a strong sense of self-awareness that naturally comes with navigating her own mental space and fame.
SweetSexy Savage displays fluid transitions from the ballads to the uptempo beats and back, all of which illustrate the multiple phases of being a woman on her journey to being understood and accepted for all that she is. And on the 18-track album’s “Intro,” which was recited by poet Reyna Biddy, Kehlani’s vision becomes clearer. “The truth is, I’m a superwoman / And some days I’m an angry woman / And some days I’m a crazy woman.”
It was no secret that Kehlani was battling her own demons in 2016. The singer was pretty vocal about her real-life wounds, especially since they were put out on front street, and has always offered fans an inside on her love life in her music. She continues to display that same vulnerability on the album with the pop-infused ballad “Advice,” where she illustrates a toxic relationship with someone who doesn’t necessarily treat her right. While she admits that she almost lost her mind, the follow-up song “In My Feelings” seems to suggest that she isn’t able to break away just yet. On the rhythmic song, which builds on New Edition’s 1998 hit “If This Isn’t Love,” she poses the questions, “Why you got me so obsessed with you?… Why do I I feel this way?” (She also pays homage to R&B legend Aaliyah by using the melody to the late singer’s “Come Over” on her emotionally-rich track, “Personal.”)
But just as easy as it was to come to terms with who she was becoming in that relationship, she is also able to break away from the bad habits and ways of thinking that come with it on the uplifting and reflective song “Piece of Mind.” Here, the Grammy-nominated artist transitions from a dependent and broken woman to a more self-reliant and self-confident one, and while Kehlani is able to show her soft spot, she isn’t afraid to be straightforward about what she desires. On the hypnotic and club-friendly “I Wanna Be,” which triggers memories of Major Lazer and DJ Snake’s “Lean On,” Kehlani outlines exactly what she wants. “I wanna be the only girl that you ever need,” she sings.
With that being said, she also reveals a certain degree of honesty and rawness in what she expects from her partner on her sultry singles “Everything Is Yours” and “Distraction.” “Distraction,” in particular, is probably the best visual representation of Kehlani realizing her sexual identity as a woman and the album as a whole. In the Destiny’s Child-inspired music video for it, the artist ventures through three colorful phases, all while demanding a relationship that will serve as nothing more than a way to pass time.
“If I gotta be a b***h, Imma a bad one,” Kehlani boldly proclaims on the Jahaan Sweet-produced “CRZY,” one of the first singles to drop from the album. That pretty much sums up her IDGAF attitude. Over the percussive background instrumentals that soon build into a bass-filled bounce beat, the singer oozes confidence and dominance, proving there is light at the end of any tunnel. With her newfound sense of self, Lani continues to talk her sh** on “Do U Dirty,” as she voices her freedom to do whatever she wants. “You think you love me now, I think you should be worried,” she sings seductively on the hook of the mid-tempo track. To help convey her self-worth, the Oakland native takes a page out of Brandy or Monica’s playbook on “Too Much,” toying with her range in the funky 90s-inspired song. She makes it clear that she is “too much of a boss” to ever get played.
Arguably, Kehlani had a lot to prove following the acclaim from her Grammy-nominated mixtape You Should be Here. It’s safe to say she did follow through with another sonically sound conversation-piece. Kehlani is sweet in her raspy ballads and heartfelt tracks illustrating her journey through relationships and love. She is sexy on her retro and synthetic beats as she explores her own sexuality. And she is a savage on her upbeat, head-banging singles as she declares her self-worth. SSS solidifies her place as a true force to reckon with in the new R&B category. So don’t sleep on Kehlani; she’s here to stay and she’s paving the way for other artists that don’t fit one label.