Twenty-year-old R&B artist Kehlani has erupted from California’s Bay Area with graceful intensity, resembling the rare force uplifting waters in generating a tsunami. However, similar to how a tsunami’s first wave may not be the biggest as it builds before breaking, she is only just beginning to pave her way, showing tremendous potential for future success. Kehlani and her music represent a multi-faceted evolution and expansion upon the raw essence of R&B. Through her two mixtapes – Cloud 19 in August 2014 and You Should Be Here in April 2015 – she undoubtedly taps into her 90s roots, properly channeling nostalgia and successfully building on the power of passionate lyrics, smooth production, and natural multidimensional talent.
Following Cloud 19's solid reception, You Should Be Here (YSBH) is catapulting Kehlani to new heights, with Billboard even naming it “the year’s first great R&B album.” The project asserts her voice quite strongly, allowing those unfamiliar with her previous music to acknowledge and recognize the intricacies of her character and vision permeating each verse. When artists share their vulnerabilities, exposing the various plagues of their souls, their reflective expression enables and mirrors that of the listeners, allowing us to find comfort in their creations. Kehlani put this into practice in her fresh, fierce, and forthright musical navigation amongst emotional terrain. Although she tells us multiple stories surrounding the men in her life, weaving through the intertwined nature of light and dark in relationships, she also reminds us how experience shapes but does not define the totality of a story or a person. She swims in despair, hikes up mountains of hurt, finds herself in valleys of lonely emptiness, but at the end she remains, emerging stronger, brighter, and more alive than ever.
Recently, Kehlani dropped a remix with labelmate Trey Songz to YSBH’s steamy hit single “The Way,” originally featuring Chance the Rapper. The remix switches up the heat, replacing Chance’s wordplay with Trey’s lusty vocals about game-changing chemistry with a one-of-a-kind woman. Around the same time, she also dropped a sleek black-and-white video for the original track. Notably, this release shot the song to #1 on Billboard’s Trending 140. The clear personas, intentional simplicity, and obvious ingenuity rooted in both Kehlani and Chance all fused for a smooth and solid product. However, Kehlani especially shines with tremendous fluidity and crazy sex appeal. She commands your attention in all she does, from her dancing to her sensuous interactions with Chance to her flirtatious camera close-ups.
Kehlani’s fluidity and appeal similarly presented themselves when she graced The Sinclair during her nearly sold-out debut headlining tour. New Orleans artists Ambré Perkins and Pell joined her for the ride as openers. Specifically in Boston, Ambré and Pell delivered brief but charming sets before Kehlani took the stage, giving a stunning performance and absolutely validating her growing hype. Prior to entering the venue, the energy of anxious fans – most of whom were young women – was just buzzing and bubbling over, electrifying the air with fluttering anticipation. Seeing these hoards of women – both younger and older than myself – waiting outside The Sinclair confirmed to me the power of Kehlani’s music and the beauty in her message. “Living Meme” Meek Mill’s Dreams Worth More Than Money – may his demolished ego rest in peace – welcomed us inside, filling our ears until the first opener, Ambré Perkins, came on stage.
Ambré is essentially a flower bud, growing and beginning to become the star within bit by bit as her petals open to the world. Her set was extremely short – too short to be honest – but was sufficient to peak interest. I also want to mention I particularly appreciated the time she took to request a moment of silence for the nine victims of the church massacre in South Carolina. Pell followed Ambré, bouncing around the stage as he performed various songs from his Floating While Dreaming mixtape. He radiated a funny and magnetic vibrancy that was enjoyable to watch. With each song, it was clear that he was propelled by personal gaiety and joy in his craft. He made a point to shout-out his hometown by mixing in two Juvenile songs, rousing the crowd as well as delighting himself as many spiritedly rapped the verses back to him. Pell is clearly developing his own flair as well, and it will be interesting to see what’s next for him.
And then finally Kehlani emerged – clad in a chunky black leather jacket boldly painted with the words “You Should Be Here” – gracefully strolling to the front of the stage to the tune of ecstatic screams. Her mane – literally that weave is magic – blew behind her, exposing the striking nature of her face. Through the course of her performance, Kehlani went through essentially every song she has released, shifting between YSBH and Cloud 19 as well as bringing other outside tracks into the fold. Her voice burst through the darkness, glittering as bright as her spirit on stage. Every note was silky and sexy but also very much fitting to her fierce, badass yet feminine persona – showing us that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Towards the middle of the set, she slowed it down, singing a few of her more emotionally raw tracks. Particularly in her performance of “The Letter,” the audience shared an intimate moment with Kehlani as she sat on her heels, singing with her eyes closed and head hung low. It was evident throughout the show that we were observing someone who was doing exactly what she was put on this Earth to do.
Kehlani displays to the world a great sense of comfort in her own skin, in her defiance of pre-conceived notions, and essentially in her existence at its core. Her music shows that she is grounded in herself without necessitating a lack of dynamism, introspection, or exploration. I also see Kehlani and her music as intersectional, like water flowing between landmasses, shifting in form but still holding the same makeup, still acting as a connecting medium. For example, when I first heard “N*ggas,” I felt instantly connected to Kehlani. I was transported to various moments of chatter and reflection with my best girlfriends, to numerous rants about the latest man failing to live up to expectations. She takes a typical tirade, an unadorned – yet slightly comical – expression of frustration, and sings it right back to us with unexpected sweetness, mimicking the humorous sting of circumstance and disappointment. Though we are around the same age, I don’t hesitate in saying I look up to her. I admire – even envy – the confidence she exudes and how she knows who she is while also embracing growth and change. She reflects a sort of free self-expression I often feel unable to access. I continually strive to share my experiences, share what is going on in my head through what I create with the same emotional intelligence and clarity I ascertain from Kehlani.
It is apparent Kehlani draws on Aaliyah’s style – among that of many others – in the sly seduction her vocals evoke, the seductiveness emerging from her dance movies, and her smooth R&B tones. However, Kehlani is not Aaliyah because no one was, is, or will ever be capable of being Aaliyah besides Aaliyah herself. It is clear that she is not trying to be her predecessors – or anyone else for that matter. Kehlani is her own woman, presenting herself openly and strongly, her beauty rooted in complexities and vulnerabilities. She has not only been handed the brush of legends before her, she has tight hold of it, breezily painting her own way with fluency and ease. Kehlani’s got definitely her own and will not only keep it runnin,’ but Rick Rubin aptly declared her music will change the world. And to think, she hasn’t even dropped an album yet. Lani Tsunami – currently covering The FADER’s August/September issue – is growing at jet-speed, becoming fiercer with each wave. Don’t get caught behind the learning curve.
Brionna Atkins is a rising senior at Harvard studying Sociology. She strongly believes reality is socially and individually constructed, so fighting the power means unraveling our symbolic universe. Revolutionary love, hiphop - from A Tribe Called Quest to Travi$ Scott - and hyperbole are her preferred weapons of choice. Follow her @gotbri and check out her blog: cloudemergent.wordpress.com.