You don’t get much bolder than this on an intro to a debut album: “The truth is I’m a superwoman, and some days I’m an angry woman, and some days I’m a crazy woman.” It is forthright stuff indeed from Kehlani, the 21-year-old Atlantic signing kicking up a fuss at the moment.
Yet the ballsy intro masks a softer centre, for as the album progresses the statement is revealed to be more of a self help message, a call to arms for a young woman who in reality is a more vulnerable singer and songwriter.
She was first spotted as part of the group Poplyfe, finalists in America’s Got Talent in 2011, but in the UK we know her better as a recent collaborator with Zayn on Wrong, a track from the sometime One Directioner’s debut album.
She has more in common with him than immediately meets the eye. Both are reassuringly frank about their state of mind, which in Kehlani’s case includes a messy breakup and struggles with depression. Like Zayn she is a mix of cutting edge urban attitude and chic, but with a much more vulnerable side, and again like Zayn she appears much older and has more life experience than her tender years would suggest.
Clearly she is fiendishly talented, ready to pour heart, body and soul into her music – and on SweetSexySavage she gets plenty of chances. CRZY gives a statement of intent along the lines of the intro, singing how “If I gotta be a bitch then I’m a bad one”. Piece Of Mind is a really smooth operation over coolly strummed harp chords, while Distraction is really nicely layered vocals, an elastic groove with a killer chorus that asks “Do-do-do-you wanna be a distraction baby?”
The layered harmonies on Advice are rather lovely, while Escape is proper single material, with a great chorus, production and layered vocal. Everything Is Yours is both tender and needy, a heartfelt proclamation of how “I love you Shorty, I need you to make me happy”. It reveals how sometimes Kehlani needs these vocal layers as reassurance, as though singing a single line would make her too open and vulnerable.
Throughout there is an interesting blend of textures and beats. In My Feelings does a nice run in slow-fast cross rhythms and oblique beats, while Not Used To It blends a wide open, cinematic piano sound with a compact electro beat. Kehlani’s honeyed tones marry beautifully with the smooth beats and textures, but on occasion less production would be more, giving a chance to see the singer’s very soul within, as it often hides behind the sleek production window.
SweetSexySavage, despite its gung-ho title, turns out to be a fine album, albeit a couple of songs too long. It doesn’t quite reach the genre-bending antics of Kehlani’s contemporaries, and certainly not Beyoncé or Solange. Yet the suspicion remains those moments may well come, for she has a great voice and is lyrically frank enough to suggest even more life experience will flood readily into her music.
There are great things going on in the world of R&B at the moment, and Kehlani looks set to be an integral part of the future, especially once she gets the chance to spread her wings even further.