Amidst the long trail of singles leading up to the release of SweetSexySavage, P. Diddy credited Kehlani with “saving R&B”. Whether the genre needed saving in the first place remains an open question: R&B has achieved a perhaps unprecedented level of ubiquity in recent years, with the indie scene, in particular, developing a sudden appreciation of its aesthetic. The label has since been applied to any number of twitchy electronic acts that incorporate heavy, mid-tempo beats into their arrangements, paving the way for all too apt terms like “PBR&B”. For many, the advent of this term alone could be enough to signal a genre in grave danger of being co-opted, exploited, and diluted. Alternatively, perhaps R&B is healthier than ever, the imitators being merely a consequence of the massive creative success of its best artists.
Regardless, it’s a lot of pressure for Kehlani to live up to on her debut studio album. For her part, she shows little interest in the buzzed-about experimental stylings of artists like FKA twigs, adhering instead to a more classic conception of R&B nested within a radio pop model. Kehlani’s work recalls Ciara’s recent output, the combination of bright acoustic guitar and heavy beats on “Undercover” taking after singles like “I Bet” while her melodic sensibility overall fits neatly alongside “I’m Out”. Rihanna’s ANTI, however, may be the most apt point of comparison for SweetSexySavage. The title alone, which represents three layers of womanhood that pervade each song, resonates with Rihanna’s tough and jaded put-downs that gradually gave way to admissions of vulnerability and real feeling. Kehlani follows a similar formula here, at times coming on relentlessly to a love interest, warning them of what they’re getting themselves into, or dismissing them when they don’t work out.
Many tracks, even those of the “sweeter” variety, keep head-over-heels romance at arm’s length in the interest of self-preservation. On “Escape”, Kehlani rejects the perverse sense of ownership that can come along with monogamous commitments, singing, “I can’t let you make me your everything / I just wanna be an escape”, adding, “I ain’t no wifey… it’s way more fun to be the mistress” on “Do U Dirty”. Nonetheless, by the time “Get Like” and “In My Feelings” come around toward the end of the album, Kehlani has become a veritable fool for love despite herself.
Kehlani’s penchant for ultra-poppy hooks is also reminiscent of Rihanna, who one can easily imagine taking on the infectious teenybopper chorus of “CRZY”. That track, and the sugary confection that makes it so addictive, simultaneously represents the best and worst of what Kehlani has to offer here. This is pop music that kicks down the door and forces its way into your head through sheer force, one of those songs that you may find grating and obnoxious while nonetheless putting it on repeat. The danger of Kehlani’s approach here is how disproportionately dominant the chorus is over the rest of the song. Whenever Kehlani drifts into the verses, she sounds somewhat lost and aimless, only becoming moored again when she returns to that ingratiating hook: “I go! I go! I go! I go cra-a-a-a-azy”. Other tracks, fortunately, evince a similarly canny ear for pop while maintaining a greater sense of balance overall, like the excellent “Distraction”, which has the sound of an instant classic. “Do U Dirty” is also a highlight, with Kehlani channeling an Ariana Grande with far more swagger.
SweetSexySavage is an enormously lengthy album, clocking in at 17 tracks on the standard edition alone. Given such long-windedness, there are surprisingly few low points, though not all songs are entirely memorable either. The album begins to sag toward the end as Kehlani takes a turn for the sentimental on “Hold Me By the Heart” and “Thank You”. These tracks may carry significant meaning for Kehlani herself, and one can hardly blame her for taking several moments to reflect on challenges and to express gratitude on the occasion of her album’s release. The effusive and indulgent manner in which she expresses herself here, however, makes it harder to connect with the songs as a listener.
Kehlani’s proper debut is by turns infectious, smooth, satisfying, and infuriating. All these descriptors would likely please Kehlani, perhaps the last one especially, as she clearly relishes in defying neat categorization. Still, for all her lofty ambitions of mapping the multifariousness of feminine identity, her musings do not always come across as potently as one might have hoped. While the romantic encounters she describes exist in a liminal, undefined space, her portrayal of these can come across as surprisingly textbook and generic, lacking the necessary particularity that would ground them in the personal realm. Kehlani is also too quick to indulge in easy narratives, whether it’s overcoming challenges and becoming stronger or simply being “cra-a-a-a-azy”, like the more badass version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The uncomplicated route Kehlani takes to these images seems to contradict her mission statement. Nonetheless, SweetSexySavage puts her pop talent on display through occasional moments of brilliance. Despite its flaws and unevenness, it establishes her as a remarkable artist worth following.
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