On While We Wait, Kehlani rests her case on the ins and outs of modern love on her latest project with defiant candor, featuring some of the freshest sonic accouterments millennial R&B has to offer.
While We Wait
22 February 2019
Romance is a warzone and navigating it is as much emotional labor as it is an emotional minefield. Bringing two people, from two different backgrounds, mindsets, experiences, together is a delicate dance that, while it might look stupendous from the outside, also entails a tricky balancing act, with the possibility of a broken toe for each en pointe. R&B is the one genre that thrives on exploring the nuances of this particular dance, from the days of Mickey & Sylvia to Ashford & Simpson to Gaye & Terrell. In its contemporary, hip-hop-infused incarnation, among the dance's finest embodiments is Aaliyah & Timbaland's "We Need a Resolution". The 2001 track is a sharp, critical autopsy on a decaying romance set to Timbaland's trademark skeletal, Middle Eastern-flavored beats. Acting as the protagonist, the late, great Aaliyah repeatedly queries whether it's she or her better half that needs to change for the sake of maintaining the relationship. Timbaland himself doesn't appear until the tail-end of the song in the role of the no-good man, concluding the song with a non-denouement as it fades out without achieving the resolution the lovers clearly, desperately need.
Babygirl's stern request for her partner to "speak your heart, don't bite your tongue" is stirringly echoed in Kehlani's "RPG", wherein she makes a recurring plea to have her significant other show her his love. Aptly abbreviated from "role-playing game", the track replicates the minimalism of "Resolution" without ripping it off, placing her lilting, passionate vocals atop soft, twinkling piano lines at its front and center before 6LACK appears past halfway through to recount his side of the story. As he rests his case, the listeners learn why the two need their own resolution: to him, love is shown; to her, it's spoken. "I've been suppressed / I ain't the best," he admits, but he also contends that her emotions prevent her from being receptive to "past life aggression, lifetime lessons... real life angels battlin' depression". He's jaded and weary, she's eager and passionate. Will this relationship sustain itself on a show of love alone?
"RPG" follows the template of its preceding track, the set's lead single "Nights Like This", which, in its own way, doubles as Kehlani's version of Drake's downhearted nocturnal meditation on "Marvins Room". But where he aggressively taunts the object of his affection with his woe-is-me-ism over a drunken phone call, she stops short of actually making the call in the first place, doubting that the other person would even pick it up—she even brushes off the thought of texting as soon as it enters her mind. Where Drake is inebriated and digresses out of control, Kehlani is fully sober and aware of the potential outcome of her worst case scenario. "You gon' get my hopes high, girl," she repeats to herself, a mantra for some goddamn self-restraint. Here, she queers up the drunk dialing trope not only in terms of the pronoun employed, but in the course of action taken: sure you can pour your heart out, but will you be able to bear its brunt?
'Restraint' is arguably the operative adjective throughout While We Wait. R&B might have a long, illustrious history of trafficking in matters of the heart, but in so doing, it also means a frequent lapse into tedious bombast and niggling melodrama. Kehlani herself has fallen prey to this; her breakout mixtape You Should Be Here and debut album proper SweetSexySavage, while incontestably well-rounded, might have benefited from a terser running time. It's tempting to rake in more streaming revenues from cramming in as many tracks as one's creative juice is able to squeeze out, but more often than not, it's done at the risk of much-needed quality control. On that note, it comes as a relief that While We Wait clocks in at nine tracks and just a little over half hour, without even once missing a beat, owing more than just its sonics to R&B veterans such as Toni Braxton and Mariah Carey and their similarly condensed 2018 releases (Sex & Cigarettes and Caution, respectively).
Spiritually speaking, though, Kehlani is a clear disciple of the philosophical and level-headed musings of Erykah Badu and India.Arie, who happen to receive a shout-out in the swagged out rap breakdown of the exuberant, TLC-esque "Morning Glory". Similarly, "Nunya" reads an overzealous (and over-jealous) ex to filth over boom-bap beats that hark back to the golden age of hip-hop soul despite its trap influence: think Mary J. Blige had she started dissing her exes in the 1990s. But even when Kehlani delivers derisive, manhood-challenging lines, you don't get a sense that she's doing it merely for the sassy or shock factor; rather, it feels more like an act of self-assertion—self-preservation, even.
Even in moments of admission and vulnerability, Kehlani still maintains her conviction, but not at the expense of the other party. "I can't fall in love for nothin', I can't lie to you for nothin'," she affirms in "Too Deep", not wanting to play the second fiddle. By the end of the second verse, however, she empathetically states "I don't wanna think less of you / I just wanna see the best for you", well aware that the love game is all about the mutual win. "Feels" doubles down on this ex umbra in a solemn state of mind ("No matter what I seen in the past / I won't let it impact how we grow now, baby") even when funneled through an used-and-abused millennial catchphrase.
At this point, Kehlani's modus operandi rings loud and clear. This statement of intent is already declared in the set's opening remarks anyway ("Patience could've done us well") in the skitterish "Footsteps", which paints a profoundly moving picture of leaving one's footsteps in the mud so you could follow them. It's "What You Won't Do for Love" recontextualized for the streaming generation. Indeed, she's got a thing for the other person and she can't let go, but she's also careful to see the other person for who they are, being in love with them and not with her own feels.
It's in the final two cuts that things cut the deepest. "Butterfly" is where the Arie and Badu influence shines the brightest, plucked guitars, drip-droppy effects and honeyed vocals abound. True to its title, the song finds her in the transitional state of a blossoming liaison, she recognizes the fear besetting everyone involved, but "I hope you take from this that it'll make you no less of man / To break your walls and simply grab my hand." It's an astute reminder that for all its seeming complexities, love can, in fact, be simple and, in Kehlani's own words, shouldn't be contraband. Meanwhile, "Love Language" bookends While We Wait with flying colors. Built on an insistent, kalimba-hued pattern, it's her final cri de coeur for patience and perseverance before the curtain call, not unlike Sade's majestic "Soldier of Love".
If romance is a warzone, perhaps it's no wonder why a lot of people around my age are wary of romantic relationships. I pondered this possibility, questioning whether the bottomless demands of the modern life constantly hinder us from even setting a meaningful, long-lasting relationship in motion, let alone sustaining them. Getting up in the morning to do a little-paid job is already a chore in itself, why bother dealing with the complexities of another human being? While We Wait might be intended as a mere "mixtape" to bridge us over until Kehlani's next full-length, but its brevity also makes for an astute observation on the transformative nature of love and how a great deal of hard work and endurance that goes into molding it into its desired, definitive form is worth its own celebration. And that's, dearly beloved, the way love goes.