Oakland R&B upstart and former America’s Got Talent finalist Kehlani’s SWEETSEXYSAVAGE is technically her debut studio album, though her previous critically acclaimed mixtapes Cloud 19 and Grammy-nominated You Should Be Here are what put her in the spotlight. The album stands as a huge statement and assertion of self in the wake of last year’s heavily covered suicide attempt and hospitalization stemming from relationship drama between OVO artist PARTYNEXTDOOR and basketball star Kyrie Irving. The title being a direct reference to TLC’s classic album CRAZYSEXYCOOL, Kehlani effortlessly channels that era of music and delivers a 17-track album that never feels like it overstays its welcome. The album certainly checks off all the boxes it promises in its title, and continues to introduce the world to this confident rising star set to be a major force in the music industry. Still only 21, the spirit of Aaliyah is alive and well.
The sound of the album is a dedicated homage to 90s R&B, all with a Californian twist that features classic sounds like the vocoder at the end of “Keep On” and the jazzier feel of West Coast hip-hop style beats. The album samples New Edition and Aaliyah herself, and even brings more contemporary R&B into it with a great interpolation of Akon’s 2007 smash hit “Don’t Matter”. The three sides of the album are not explicitly marked but they certainly come across in the sound, which can tend to get a bit too similar as the album goes on but varies enough in tone to remain enjoyable throughout. Kehlani can be sweet, accompanied by breezy and tropical synths and pianos, sexy – with instrumentals sounding like R. Kelly at his prime, or savage – where the instrumental turns dark and trap-influenced for Kehlani to unleash a verbal assault on her detractors.
The majority of the production is done by Pop & Oak, who have been doing great work with up-and-coming R&B and hip-hop artists for a while now – recent credits including Alessia Cara’s Know-It-All and Elle Varner’s Perfectly Imperfect. Special shoutout goes to G.O.O.D. Music producer Charlie Heat, who brings the bouncy and melodic synth lines he showed off on Kanye’s “Facts” and D.R.A.M.’s “Cute” to standout track “Undercover”.
Single “Distraction” commands your attention from its opening few seconds, as a small bit of the chorus is amplified with reverb and additional harmonies before dropping into a bassline-driven traditional R&B beat. Kehlani’s voice is truly unique – somehow equal parts aggressive and vulnerable. She acts more like a rapper with accented delivery more often than showing off her singing abilities, but can easily surprise with some impressive runs and reaches into her upper range, such as on the outro of slower track “Hold Me By The Heart”. The project is frequently surprising in the musical technique that goes into it, you don’t typically hear a complex sharped harmony like on the chorus of “Piece of Mind” anymore.
She uses her R&B sensibilities to make certain songs extremely beautiful, which might not be expected on an album where she frequently proclaims how hood she is. Tracks like “Escape” and “Everything Is Yours” slow things down to allow Kehlani to put harmonies at the forefront, sounding like a one-woman TLC. Another strength running through the project is just how confident Kehlani comes off, which is a great look for her. Kehlani is going to get the man she wants becuase she loves who she is. The line from “CRZY”, “If I gotta be a b*tch, imma be a bad one” really sums up the entire project.
The song structure tends to get a little strange at times. The individual fragments of the songs are always great, but the transitions are a little awkward and can leave listeners thinking something is going to happen after a perceived build-up. The choruses of tracks like “Undercover” (which recovers better than most) and “Not Used To It” end on a bit of an unresolved chord that makes us think a huge drop of some sort is coming that never does. Even a song like “Advice” features a chorus that decreases in energy from the verse. Standing at 17 tracks, some of the similar-sounding ones certainly could have been cut for a more compact and focused album, but Kehlani has a lot to say on every one of these tracks, and considering the events in her life, we should let her.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Kehlani catalogued the evolution of her albums: Cloud 19 proved “I can sing!”, You Should Be Here proved “I can write!” and SWEETSEXYSAVAGE proved “I can chill! And have fun!” which is a great place to see the singer. Closing track “Thank You” is a very emotional letter to the fans who supported her through the hard times, and with a product this fantastic immediately after, it is us who should be thanking her.
Favourite Tracks: Escape, Distraction, Get Like, Too Much, Undercover
Least Favourite Track: Not Used To It