Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream.
For me, the scariest part of seeking closure is the possibility of discovering my presence wasn’t missed in the first place. This is why I’m so struck by Kehlani’s “little story,” the singer’s gently written call for a romantic epilogue. Most critics would agree it’s difficult to assess any form of artistic vulnerability without referring to it as brave. But perhaps that word should be used more sparingly, as it most urgently applies to a song like “little story,” a piece of writing that explores acceptance with the threat of rejection as its subtext.
Released late last month alongside an artful black-and-white visual, the second single from Kehlani’s forthcoming blue water road LP finds her in a place of both flirtation and reflection. As she yearns for a way to add new pages to an old romance, she puts the power of authorship in the other person’s hands. At its core, “little story” is a song in search of a happily-ever-after. What isn’t mentioned in the single’s lyrics, but ought to be considered when admiring their courage, is the thought that the person on the other side of this quest for closure could already be quite content with how things ended.
The pursuit of closure is a tricky thing. It’s at once selfless and presumptuous, in that the person seeking it is able to see beyond themselves but usually not far enough to wonder if their former friend or lover feels it’s warranted. Articulated incorrectly, a sincere expression of a person’s importance in your life could instead be read as manipulative, intrusive, and oddly self-centered. Throughout “little story,” Kehlani navigates this dilemma with much more charm, grace, and assuredness than I ever have.
Personally, I’ve most often felt the urge to seek closure with people who’ve done me wrong. Unpacking why is an exercise best left for another column. But with that being the case, I frequently find myself negotiating closure with the fear that I’m reaching out to a person who either doesn’t agree or doesn’t care that they’ve mishandled me. From there, the idea of my forgiveness feels fruitless and embarrassing, as a person in that position is likely living a perfectly fine life without me.
But in wanting closure, what if you’re the one who’s in need of grace, and the person with the power to give it has not only the right but the inclination to refuse? If apathy in the face of forgiveness is frightening, the possibility of being rejected when offering remorse is bone-chilling. Incredibly, Kehlani finds a sense of poetic destiny in this daunting endeavor.
Musically driven by an acoustic guitar and not much else, save for a cinematic crescendo of violins toward the end, “little story” leaves room for the big ambition of its lyrics. Throughout both the song’s verses, Kehlani accepts accountability for her part in a failed relationship but doesn’t get hung up on apologies. Instead, she leads with the sort of double-spoken flattery that perhaps excited yet ultimately plagued her partner in the first place. In this, the song contains a coyness that drapes a thin veil over its more earnest proposition.
Wouldn’t say I’m a lie, but I’m not always honest
I ain’t come through, but that’s why I ain’t promise
You got a face that I couldn’t lie to
Light blue lights in your white room
And you’re fine too, ooh, ooh-ooh, oh, oh
Oh, yeah, I want you to do it again
I want you to pick up the pen and write me into your story
You know I love a story, only when you’re the author
Tryna meet you at the altar
Workin’ on bein’ softer
Ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh, ooh
In praising the sentiment of the song’s lyrics, I don’t want to give the impression that I think there’s some great depth to them. The opening lines of “little story” are in fact pretty childish. Essentially, they’re suggesting misleading a partner is somehow different than lying to them, which itself is a lie. But, still, there’s a deceptive intelligence to these bars, in that they sound like something someone audacious enough to seek closure with a person they’ve abandoned would actually say. Ineffective communication makes for effective songwriting and storytelling in this case.
The beginning of the pre-chorus, “I want you to do it again/ I want you to pick up the pen and write me into your story,” is when the song’s motif comes into play. There’s a tweak to these lyrics later that I appreciate, but at this point, it becomes clear the song is written with the flow of a conversation—perhaps the very first conversation since the one that ended things originally. Whereas the record begins with the guardedness you’d expect from someone circling back with a distant ex, it eventually escalates to a place of sincere humility, as Kehlani promises to be softer, and dreams of a moment someday shared at an altar.
Still mad I hit the dash on you
After wearin’ you down right to the last of you
I was movin’ just maybe a little fast for you
Just tell me it belongs in the past
‘Cause you gotta face that I couldn’t run from
Heartbreak, Taurus, I’m a shy girl
But you’re not one, ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh, ooh, oh
Oh, yeah, I want you to do it again
I want you to love me again and complete our little story
We got one hell of a story, you’re a hell of an author
You swear I’ll leave you at the altar
Workin’ on bein’ softer
Ooh, ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh, oh, woah
With this column being a rejection of romantic cynicism, what most qualifies “little story” for inclusion is the totality of its second verse and pre-chorus. Here, the line about the altar is revised to address the well-earned doubt cast in the mind of Kehlani’s former partner, as she precedes it with admissions of moving too fast both in and away from the relationship. But despite that, the singer remains hopeful there’s more to be written.
Notions of an incompatible pace and abrupt departure lead me to believe the story that’s being authored here is one of fleeting commitment, which feels all too common these days. Perhaps the bond being salvaged on “little story” is that of a summer fling. Or maybe it better resembles those six-week micro-relationships that occur throughout the year in big but lonely cities. With its allusions to marriage, though, it’s perhaps more likely the song is about the sort of person who pops in and out of one’s life through the tumult of their 20s. Either way, there’s a boldness to the manner in which “little story” details the complexities of modern love, even if it does so imperfectly.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say I like this song, given it isn’t very well sung and its sappy production bums me out more than it moves me. But what’s undeniable is the cleverness of its conceit, as its lyrics contain poetry uniquely reflective of the times. In a world where even the happiest among us carry scars from severed situationships that would have otherwise been long-lasting friendships, a record contemplating closure feels deeply important.