Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Kehlani

Ahead of her Auckland concert later this month, here is the Midnight Ramble's look at the discography of up-and-coming songstress Kehlani. If it reads like a seventy-year-old white man discovering contemporary music for the first time, apologies in advance.

Cloud 19 (2014)
The difference between a mix-tape and an album is something I am still trying to nail down. In Kehlani's case, I think it refers to a collection of tracks which have not been assembled together. Each track has a different producer, and a (relatively) different feel and style.

The remake of Nightmare at 20 000 Feet went through some big changes

Opening with a bouncy guitar loop, 'FWU' is a jaunty hip hop number that I started skipping a few runs in. Usually I am sucker for opening tracks, but this one is just okay. It doesn't help that the next song is more appealing.

'As I Am' is the closest thing to a traditional ballad on the album (crap, I'm already screwing it up). It's a sweet song that manages to avoid sounding annoying (which is good considering the chorus gets repeated about a hundred times through the song). With good lyrics and a strong melody, this is one of the best songs on the, uh, collection.

Produced by Jahaan Sweet, 'Get Away' oscillates between hip hop-style RnB ala nineties Timbaland, and a more lush ballad during the chorus (complete with synth string section). The effect is very exciting, as the sound expands and contracts to replicate the central character's growing feelings toward some unknown lover.

Another ballad, 'Deserve Better' is just as catchy as the previous song, but with more obvious dub-like production. Backed by some videogame-style beats and a synth piano, it ends before it really revs up.

Interpolating snippets of Montell Jordan's immortal 'This Is How We Do It', 'How We Do Us' is a duet with Kyle Dion that re-purposes the party anthem as a paean to the couple's romance. It's a good, catchy song, but hearing Jordan's hook just made me want to listen to the original again.

Simultaneously more restrained and explicit than any other song on the tape, '1st Position' is a monologue from a woman to her new girlfriend, calming her nerves before their first intimate experience. It's still a bit rare to hear a straightforward RnB song about homosexual desire, and this one is really good. The narrator is basically the female equivalent of all those male singers with 'bedroom' personas. The key difference is here the narrator's intentions are more earnest and less lascivious. As the narrator continues to lay out her argument, she couches their characters' potential union as a form of female solidarity, a viable alternative to the pitfalls of dealing with the opposite sex. A clever twist on an old template, '1st Position' is one of the most interesting tracks of the set.

More of a straightforward dance track, 'Act a Fool' features a guest verse from rapper Iamsu!. It's okay, but not nearly as memorable as other tracks on the album.

Powered by an upbeat, catchy chorus, 'Tell Your Mama' is a fun little ditty that rounds of the set on a high note. Barely two and a half minutes long, it takes a shot at a wider idea of love and affection, directing the listener to make sure that they remember to love their families and friends. Sappy sentiment? Possibly. But the packaging is so winning, it never matters.

Taken as a sampler of Kehlani's talents, Cloud 19 is a pretty enjoyable confection. No song outstays its welcome, and having different producers for every song does not hamper the listening experience. The variety of styles ends up being a bonus, allowing Kehlani to show off her talents within a series of different frameworks.

You Should Be Here (2015)
Released barely a year after Cloud 19, You Should Be Here is far more ambitious and expansive. To be honest, calling this a mix-tape feels weird. The sequencing feels more deliberate, and the album even has an intro track.
    
Good cover for an album, crap ad for San Fran's air quality
Following said introductory skit (in which Kehlani calls her grandfather and offers a dedication to all of her friends and family who are not here to see her succeed), 'You Should Be Here' converts its sentiment into song. The track is a little too processed for it to really connect, but Kehlani's performance is good, her weathered voice lending the track a grit that would otherwise be obscured by the production.

From the people who are no longer here to those who are, in 'How That Taste' Kehlani throws a middle finger at everyone who thought she would never achieve her dreams.

In 'Jealous', Kehlani throws more shade at the superficiality of relationships post-fame. Over a bed of hip hop beats, the narrator scorches her boyfriend for 'taking pictures', and using her to get attention from other women. Featuring a guest verse from Lexii Alijai, the track has a nice melody which adds a nice swing to the bite of her lyrics (including one hilarious bit where she threatens to 'cut it off').

'N****s' shows Kehlani still on the warpath, turning on all the ne'er-do-wells and hangers-on who have tried to sponge off of her and manipulate her because she is young and (relatively) famous. The tone is more rueful than angry - the narrator has been on this road so many times before that she does not waste time with them any more.

As a respite from the downsides of fame, 'Wanted' is a love song dedicated to a new boyfriend who is the opposite of the characters she slammed in the previous songs. The lyrics are still directed at the targets of those songs, as the narrator ponders whether her past lovers will be jealous of her newfound happiness.

'The Way' features Chance the Rapper as Kehlani's paramour from the previous songs. His involvement probably helped get this set some more attention. In a nice inversion of expectations, his side of the story is less rose-coloured. There are points where he plays the character as almost a hostage of his girlfriend's attentions. It winds up being pretty funny, as the song swings between Kehlani's overheated praises and Chance's slightly overwhelmed retorts. The ironic edge winds up helping get the song's sentiment over.

'Unconditional' is a self-empowerment anthem in which Kehlani revels in her imperfections, and dismisses societal expectations that she should look a certain way. The ultimate message is fairly obvious: unconditional love means accepting your partner's flaws. While the theme is valid, the song comes off as a bit clumsy.

Well, this is a change of pace. The first couple times I listened to 'The Letter', I thought it was a breakup song. For some reason I totally missed the part where she referred to her mother. Accompanied by a gentle piano theme, it takes over two minutes for the narrator to refer directly to her parent. The lyrics see her grapple with trying to understand the reasons why her mother disappeared. About the time her intended audience is revealed, electronic drones and stabs overwhelm the piano, as her anger builds. But just as it feels like the song is about to reach catharsis, it dissipates to just Kehlani's voice repeating the line 'Maybe I didn't deserve you...' The song is ultimately a reflection on trauma, and how confronting your pain can often feel like an endless loop. Rather than push the false idea that you can push through them and move on, the song is purely about the struggle.

A too-short piece about strong women, 'Runnin' (Interlude)' feels like a thematic extension of 'The Letter', as Kehlani emphasises that it doesn't matter what life throws at you, as long as you keep 'running'.

While it is called a mix-tape, You Should Be Here feels like an album. The production and sequencing make it feel fully formed in a way that Cloud 19 did not. 'Be Alright' is the perfect example of this cohesion, as it builds on the previous songs' focus on struggle to offer a reprieve. The lyrics boil down to a version of 'if the going gets tough, the tough get going'.

'Down for You', a duet with BJ the Chicago Kid, is another love song. It's okay, but there's a sameness to the melody which prevents it from really standing out.

A flip side to the previous song, 'Yet' features cryptic lyrics in which the singer warns someone to don't get too fresh -- they are not close enough to be either friends or enemies. This is tinpot analysis but I took it to be a song about the way fame distorts relationships.

'Bright' is a dose of old-school sanctified soul, in which Kehlani offers a confidence boost for her listeners, returning to the theme of  believing in yourself. The combination of the old-school style works well with the lyrics, turning it into an anthem without feeling didactic.

Beginning as a guitar-led ballad, with an assist from Coucheron, 'Alive' morphs into a new-wave dance track as Kehlani exorts the listener to join her in being in thankful for being, well, alive. It repeats the same trick as 'Tell Your Mama' off her previous set, leaving the listener on a high note.

More cohesive than her first mixtape, overall the songs on You Should Be Here are stronger, although the unity of sound and subject does mean we lose the eclecticism that made Cloud 19 so much fun. Still, it's a strong piece of work and worth a listen.

SweetSexySavage (2017)
Following her well-received mixtapes, Kehlani was signed to Atlantic Records. Her first, full-length album was released earlier this year.

"Pink skies, smiling at me. Nothing but pink skies do I see..."
A few things to note off the bat. The production is more polished, but also in a slightly heavier style: the beats hit harder, and the emphasis seems to be on more nineties-style dance rhythms, loops and beats. The thematic concerns of her previous work return, with a few call backs to the songs on her mix tapes, as well as to nineties RnB (it's not hard to read the album title as a callback to TLC's CrazySexyCool).

Straight out of the gate, 'Keep On' is funkier than most of her earlier work, with a heavier beat that makes it more of a dance track. The lyrics are double-edged: on face-value, Kehlani addresses a lover who she has put through the ringer. She cannot believe that after everything she has put them through, they still stick around. On the other hand, you could read them as a subtle critique of this person: they don't have enough courage to put their foot down with the narrator's antics, which means the relationship will never improve (or, more realistically, come to a close). Despite the groove (or maybe because of it), the song has an oddly melancholic vibe - almost like a funeral dirge for a relationship that's slowly folding in on itself.

One of the things I like about Kehlani is how she can take an idea for a song and then oscillate between negative and positive angles on it. That unwillingness to be reductive is a signature of her lyrics, and 'Distraction' is one of the more interesting examples on this album. Dealing with the idea of 'distractions', she weighs their relative merits and deficiencies. It's an odd, kind of abstract idea that it took me a while to grasp. Initially I read the lyrics as a celebration of female agency in terms of casual hookups, but I guess she had a broader idea of 'distractions'. It's got a really catchy melody and a good pace. Closer to the style of her last mixtape - the drum machine provides the same tinny beats as her previous releases - there is a wash of synth atmos under it which beefs up the sound. 

The longest track on the album, 'Piece of Mind' feels like a mature version of a track of You Should Be Here. The narrator reflects on a toxic relationship in which her self-confidence was shattered, and the ways that she has been able to grow out of and beyond the pain. It's a rather complex look at the importance of self-worth. It's a theme that Kehlani has dealt with before, but this is probably the most realised execution of this idea.

Marked by an infectious melody, 'Undercover' has a nice bounce to it and a memorable chorus. Barely three minutes long, it's a sugar rush of hormones in musical form.

A play on the various meanings of the word, 'CRZY' feels like something Rihanna would record (think 'B**** Better Have My Money'), minus the blood and violence. Kehlani's brand of 'crazy' is more diverse and, uh, constructive than some of Riri's stuff, but is powered by the same kind of aggressive beat and vaguely processed vocals that were used on Rated R and Anti. As always, Kehlani's lyrics circle around the same underlying themes of acceptance and empathy which have underpinned her previous work. Justifiably, it was released as a single.

An exercise in passive-aggressive shade-throwing (is that a thing?), 'Personal' feels like a thematic continuation of songs like 'Jealous' and 'N****s' (from You Should Be Here), in that it deals with someone (a collaborator? a lover?) who betrayed her trust, and now has to watch her from the sound lines. Backed by weird nu-wave synths, the track has an odd stop-and-start rhythm that complements Kehlani's delivery of her backhanded putdowns.

Opening with a piano intro that sounds like it is being played through an old radio, 'Not Used to It' presents Kehlani's spin on a familiar narrative: a narrator making their way through life while dealing with a broken home and gang violence. It is imagery we have seen reflected before in plenty of great (and bad) rap songs, and it has become so well known that it has moved outside of music and pop culture to become part of the public conscience (and not for the better. Cough. Donald Trump). In its various forms and uses, this imagery has become a cliché - and hence, it has become easy to be de-sensitised to it. What is different about 'Not Used to it' is that instead of something more didactic, this imagery is filtered through another familiar frame: a love story.  By presenting it through such a small, intimate story, this imagery gets its power back. 'Not Used To It' is a prime example of the singer's ability to re-fresh old ideas with a new point of view.

Awash with dreamy electronic textures and odd, stuttering beats, 'Everything Is Yours' is a story of symbiosis that can come with first love - only here, the object of affection is marred by doubts. It's your classic tragic ballad, in which the narrator is entrapped by affection for a bad lover. The soundscape is rather claustrophobic, which works for the circular nature of the lyrics.

Following a song based around an internal dialogue with oneself, 'Advice' is a thematic sequel - the hunch the narrator had turned out to be right. As she continues to wrestle with the contradiction posed by her boyfriend, the song turns into a warning - even if they fit your ideal, if they fail at the fundamentals (communication, honesty etc) then you have to follow your better instincts and quit the relationship.

Following the internal arguments of the preceding tracks, 'Do U Dirty' represents a final catharsis. Directly addressing the antagonist of the previous songs, the narrator beats the player at his own game. The song is basically Kehlani's spin on TLC's 'Creep', although the comparison is unfair -while the lyrics are suitably biting, and kind of funny ("Swear you see the good in me/But that don't beat the hood in me"), the music is not nearly as catchy.

Following the romantic to-and-fro of the last couple of songs, 'Escape' is a bit of a reprieve. It's  another take on that old rom com trope where our heroine takes the movie to figure out that her dream man is an asshole, and that the person she really wants has been under her nose the whole time (generally some shlubby friend). I'm of two minds on the lyrics - they are either from the narrator's perspective (which cements the cliché), or this song is from the shluby friend (probably the narrator from '1st Position') finally revealing their true feelings. With guitar and piano, it is less overtly hip hop than the preceding songs, but the change in style is welcome, and a breather from all the doom and gloom.   

If 'Escape' is that cliche scene where the female lead realises her best friend is in love with her, 'Too Much' is the scene where the scuzzy ex tries to get her back. Its beats recall Aaliyah's One in a Million, although with a more psychedelic edge. The beat adds a nice sing-song edge to Kehlani's vocals - every time she goes into the chorus it feels like she is landing the punchline to a joke on her ex. While the similarity is very slight, it felt oddly reminiscent of D'Angelo's 'Shit, Damn, Motherf***r', off his first album.

Boasting the most memorable chorus on the album, 'Get Like' bounces along like 'Too Much' never happened. Returning to the rom com checklist, this is the scene after our heroine finally shows her ex the door and can be with her shlubby friend. Or alternatively, taking the next song into account, this is the scene where she falls to temptation and gets back together with the douche.

While its backing track is up-tempo, 'In My Feelings' is another examination of romantic contradictions as our narrator tries to figure out why she is still with the same person, despite their faults. It is either our narrator finally breaking with her douchey ex, or a new bout of anxiety about her new beau. The reference to years passing is either an exaggeration or this song is a flash forward to the post-mortem of her new relationship. Or I'm totally off the mark. 

The most overt ballad on the album, 'Hold Me by the Heart' is based on acoustic guitar and multi-tracked backing vocals. At times Kehlani's voice feels like it's layered under the instrument, but that might just be my shitty ear phones. It's a decent song - I think I liked it more because it was completely different from the hip hop beats and loops of the songs around it. It helps that it is based on a simple, hummable melody (on that count, it resembles 'Alive' from You Should Be Here). On its own, it comes off a little mawkish and cheesy, but within the context of the track list it feels like a culmination, a 'happy ending' to the narrator's relationship trials.

Like her previous mixtape, Kehlani ends the album on an up-note. 'Thank You' is not nearly as obvious in its message as 'Alive', but it fulfils the same function. The narrator rises above the morass of her relationship drama to recognise that things aren't that bad (it helps that it opens with audio of a child listing the things they are thankful for e.g. family, food, a place to live). 

The deluxe edition includes two bonus tracks, 'I Wanna Be' and 'Gangsta', which was previously on the soundtrack to Suicide Squad. Coming after 'Thank You', the effect is somewhat disconcerting. That track ends the album so definitively, it feels like the narrative threads that have been tied off are being loosened again.

An odd beast, 'I Wanna Be' sounds like a dance track but the lyrics sound like a torch song. Thematically, this puts it completely at odds with the previous track. That aside (no one listens to albums beginning to end anymore), it's a fun song with a catchy melody and strong beat. 

Stripped of context, 'Gangsta' feels like a parody of the album it ends. Written from the perspective of the Joker's on-off girlfriend Harley Quinn, it reads like a deranged day dream. With its slowed tempo and vaguely techno production, it is perfectly attuned to the character's romantic dementia. I haven't seen the movie, but on its on the song is a pretty good theme for the comic book villainess.

Overall thoughts? A solid debut. A few songs sound a little too much like nineties homages, and some of the themes feel repeated, but other than that it's a really good album. Most of its flaws are fairly typical - like most albums, it is basically a great set list bloated by a few too many tracks. A more judicious track list would probably improve things a bit. On the plus side,  Kehlani does not appear to like fat on her songs - they average three-and-a-half minutes.

A few niggles aside, as a thematic piece SweetSexySavage is surprisingly coherent. It is rare to see someone with an extremely well-developed style and set of themes so early in their career. While it does go back and forth on its ideas of relationships, this focus on swinging between ennui and exhilaration is a pretty good mirror for the realities of love - it can messy, it doesn't make sense, and sometimes it feels like going through the motions. Ultimately, while it has a few dead spots, SweetSexySavage is a pretty good album that shows Kehlani on a trajectory toward great things.

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