Kehlani's 'SweetSexySavage' Is A Reminder That It's OK To Make Room For Healing
"It's an example of the progression that R&B music is capable of."
In the age of social media, you would think that allowing yourself to be more vulnerable to others would become second nature, especially considering how much we tend to overshare. Instead, we tend to use our social media accounts to create facades and hide our true feelings. That sentiment has become prevalent in the music that millennials have been absorbing and creating for the last few years. However, 21-year-old Oakland songwriter and performer Kehlani took a chance and went against the grain with her debut album SweetSexySavage.
After the release of her Grammy-nominated mixtape You Should Be Here, the singer's personal life was the subject of much speculation as she went through a break-up with NBA player Kyrie Irving and dealt with troubling rumors that almost ended her life. Despite that, the singer bounced back and continued to push along with her music dropping hints of new music like "CRZY" and "Gangsta" prepping for the release of her debut album. The songs were definitely a glimpse into what SweetSexySavage entails, as the album focuses on the rollercoaster of emotions felt while in love, falling out of love, and sometimes that weird in-between space. Typical relationship narratives in music find the artist showing that they had the upper hand and did not allow themselves to fall victim to someone's deceit, lies, or flat-out attractive and likable nature. Kehlani's SweetSexySavage says to hell with that, and delivers a sheer amount of emotional realism that can sometimes feel as if a mirror is faced in your direction. If the realistic nature of her lyrics come off as being wounded, that's because she is and has no issue with letting the listener know. The intro to the album drives this point home, as a spoken word piece performed by Reyna Biddy prepares the listener to deal with the range of emotions to be expressed on the album.
Photo: Tim Mosenfelder
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Immediately following the intro, the track "Keep On" finds Kehlani acknowledging that her significant other keeps taking her back, despite not being the best fit for them. Her lyrics paint the picture of being an unreliable girlfriend who many would say "ain't shit," but her actions somehow lead her back to the one she wants to be with. It's that type of vulnerability and openness that sets the tone for how emotionally raw she will be on the project moving forward. Joints like "Distraction" and "Do U Dirty" make it clear that she has moments where she wants what she wants, and that she has no problem communicating her needs. "Personal" is a farewell to her past relationships, which she personifies at times, and delivers the parting thought that she chooses herself and well-being over anything else. While some of the song titles may seem straight-forward, her lyrics prove to show the complexities of her experiences. "In My Feelings" is a faultless example, as she lays every example of what would cause her to become upset and sad, yet still remain with her significant other. She even laid out the scenario of going over someone's crib, only to have them stare at their phone instead of pay attention to you. That's as real as shit can get when you get annoyed with someone you want to see.
A part of what makes Kehlani and her voice remain fresh to the listener is her ear for production, drawing inspiration from many sounds including the works of Aaliyah. "Too Much" sounds like a 2017-twist on the foundations laid out by Aaliyah's "If Your Girl Only Knew." The track "Get Like" draws from dancehall culture with a muffled sampling of Terror Fabulous' "Action," playing into her detailed description of crawling out her shell for the right person. "Advice" serves as a definitive moment on SweetSexySavage, because the singer essentially acknowledges that she should practice what she preaches. Although pop-friendly production lies under the song, her message is clear cut as she speaks on taking a chance on a relationship and almost losing her footing and mind because of it. The amount of self-awareness and introspection on this song, as well as album in general are traits that modern music lack sorely lack overall.
Although Kehlani's album delivers in terms getting across a message of being a young woman who can be loving and sensual yet cold if you cross her, the message seems to be a bit overextended. By the time you reach the track "Too Much," you begin to feel as if the album was packed with way too many songs. Also, a few of the tracks convey the same sentiments, which means they could have been left off to better hone in on this important juncture of her life. Also, the overall vibe of the album constantly hopscotched to way too many places, which cut out the possibility of having a slow-building direct path for her narrative as a young woman in need of healing.
Overall, Kehlani's SweetSexySavage is an example of the progression that R&B music is capable of. Her album also managed to address the emotion of love in a candid and refreshing manner while keeping her songs dance-able. The risk of wearing her heart on her sleeve paid off.