After a whirlwind of buzz and acclaim, and nearly as much personal chaos, Kehlani's debut album has finally arrived.
In the course of a few years, 21-year-old Kehlani Ashley Parrish has experienced the best and worst aspects of growth. After starting initially in the Bay Area-based group PopLyfe (perhaps the most visual display of the awkward teen phase ever caught on national broadcast), Kehlani chartered a solo career that has scrupulously documented her maturation as an artist and a human being.
Both her debut mixtape Cloud 19 and follow-up You Should Be Here were characterized by musical variety that ranged from neo-soul to the pop end of 'ratchet,' while all the while maintaining an honest songwriting style that could veer suddenly from captivating to awkward beyond belief. 2016 saw a Grammy nomination, collaborations with pop stars getting weighed next to emotional turmoil from public chaos which ran the risk of claiming Parrish's life. On an 'official' debut like SweetSexySavage, is Kehlani pulling any punches, or are we granted everything she has to offer and then some?
On SweetSexySavage, Kehlani explores the guilt and shamelessness in dealing with ephemeral relationships and the shifty decisions that lead to them end prematurely. Whether its the jarringly frank come-ons of “Distraction” or the internal frustrations of “Advice” in which she muses in detail on her failings as a person, she manages to come across as wise and self-aware beyond her years. At the same time, her earnestness can be tiring when its extended across the album's sixteen tracks, especially in its constant oscillation between preening and self-aggrandizing.
An unfortunate problem that's developed with SweetSexySavage is a surprisingly mundane production palette. On her mixtapes, Kehlani had a sense of mixing clubby with evocative, throwback with modern, and never at once feeling like she shoehorned herself in any direction. Pop & Oak handle the majority of her production. Despite providing great work for the likes of Tamia, Miguel and Tory Lanez, here they deem fit to keep her songs firmly mired in a mid-tempo pace with very little distinguishing characteristics. As a result much of the pace gets dragged to a plod and leaves their stretches of the album feeling incredibly samey. Old associates such as Jahaan Sweet (who scores gold with the warped choir harmonies on “Personal”) and The Featherstones are welcome breaks from the tiresome aspects of the record, but other left turns such as Charlie Heat's remarkably generic “Undercover” (which doesn't get helped by a lazy Akon interpolating hook) or Novawav's “CRZY” do little to help establish Kehlani's uniqueness as an artist, which her debut album should effectively have in mind as a goal.
Kehlani's voice is soft and conversational, giving her a 'girl-next-door' type of charm, but it isn't an ethereal whisper of nothingness trying to cover up any inadequacies as a singer. Unfortunately, that leaves us with rather repetitive melodies and more of the overly similar feel plaguing the album, as often she remains in the same range for long stretches of music. When she does attempt to stylistically break out, she opts for melodic rap-inspired deliveries that are flashy but essentially generic. In as much of her growth as an artist, Kehlani has found her own voice lyrically and that's no small achievement in a world where limited content and all too familiar themes dominates R&B.
SweetSexySavage is not ultimately a disappointment, despite the many areas where the record feels slight. Instead, its a rather provocative statement in offering a showcase of Kehlani Parrish as one of the more difficult artists to get a handle on making a name for herself. While her songs aren't confrontational in the sense that they always feel obviously aggressive, there is a stridency and an unrelenting desire to be accepted for whom she is, to the detriment of anyone who might risk being turned-off by someone with such a clear lack of filter. However, her goal appears less to work as a seducer but to emotionally overwhelm and be taken along for the ride. And with the stronger moments on this record and in her past, it seems fair to suggest that such a ride, turbulent as it may feel upon trying to take off, would reach heights that few others dare might try. One can only hope that the hardest part is over for Kehlani, and that with time she'll be able to prove just how talented she really is.