Kehlani – blue water road

While it’s always been clear that Kehlani’s near-hypnotic vocal talents are far and away their greatest strength, they’ve seemingly been struggling to land on their artistic identity with their past couple of projects – collections of tracks which often provide a pleasant first listen, but don’t leave much in the form of memorability. With their third studio album, blue water road, a number of newly discovered factors confer to likely remedy that issue. Alongside their return to the dreamy R&B soundscapes that coloured their early career and play nicely to their most intoxicating vocal sweet spots, Kehlani’s lyrical content has never been quite so vividly specific and compelling – especially when they let listeners in on their experiences pursuing romance as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. With some well-chosen features along for the ride that all bring their best to the table, blue water road is Kehlani’s best project since their debut.

Much like the overture of sorts before really diving into the messy details that appeared on Billie Eilish’s latest album, opening track “little story” finds Kehlani giving listeners a narrative backstory on the relationship that will be addressed later. Switching from acoustic strums to a more orchestral section as the story develops, Kehlani asks for forgiveness and lyrically previews some of the themes that appear later on. They’re “working on being softer,” as they assert to their departed lover, and it shows – sinking into a bed of stunning harmonies and strings at the track’s conclusion, it comes across better than their prickly past. There’s just something about Kehlani’s vocal tone that lends itself well to dreamy romance rather than bitterness. The track “any given sunday” is a bit of a flex-centric, trap-flavoured cut to kick off the proceedings, as Kehlani asserts themselves as the “daddy” in the relationship and lands on more of a rap flow while throwing stacks in the club. While we get a little more engaging, intimate and immersive later on, the chorus here is highly catchy and Blxst is a solid duet partner.

The album transitions into “wish i never” with a brief interlude that sees Kehlani essentially turning their hate comments into a song, seemingly putting their past behind them symbolically and stepping forward. Speaking of transitions, it’s around this point that they start becoming seamless – a little thing that always gives an album a couple extra points from this reviewer, especially when the story Kehlani is weaving here continues to develop with each track. “wish i never” sees them let a bit more of their full voice come out for a believably panicked performance as they stress about the drama-laden mess they’ve gotten themselves into over the knocking drums of a Slick Rick sample, but the surprising star of the full album is the Justin Bieber-featuring “up at night.” Coasting on what is easily the most dynamic instrumental on the project with some Nile Rodgers-esque funky guitar licks, finger snaps and a fantastic bassline, Kehlani’s layered vocal harmonies on the chorus are the biggest reminder of their older work. Kehlani offers up the other side of the coin, singing about the lingering thoughts of their partner even after all of the fights, and both Bieber and Kehlani offer up some impressive vocal runs. The old-school energy is pushed through the roof by some beatboxing during the bridge. “get me started” brings another great guest in Syd aboard, as the slow jam energy is introduced with the sound of waves on the beach. The two blend into each other, Kehlani matching Syd’s breathier tone for an immersive duet as they analyze their relationships and try to fix things before the next explosion.

The all-star collaborations continue on the track “more than i should,” which is essentially the final bastion of doubt before Kehlani finds a state of bliss until the album’s closer – but it’s a pretty big statement on doubt. Who better to team up for an anthem about the grey areas of cheating than fellow fiery vocalist with a sharp tongue Jessie Reyez? Bringing back some more fun R&B tropes of the past with a talk box echoing in the background, a TLC-style shouted refrain in the chorus and some high-pitched twinkling synths, this is a bitter narrative with a heart of gold as Kehlani and Reyez toast to the most wholesome of traits in their new love interest. On the next track, “altar,” Kehlani has never sounded so happy. Holding up as one of the strongest tracks here since its release last September, Kehlani offers an exuberant and celebratory anthem about turning grief and loss into a celebration of what someone has taught you – as they seemingly relate it to both death and exes. “melt” goes back to the romantic story as Kehlani continues the blissful energy with some of their most impressive vocal moments and adorable lyrics about two becoming one. The way they build up the immersive warmth of these tracks with their layered vocals is pretty masterful, and the vaguely Latin plucked guitar loop evokes a perfect vacation with a partner.

The project fades out on a run of tracks about Kehlani’s newfound freedom and happiness. “tangerine” is the most sensual track of them all, featuring some more of Kehlani’s vocal layering prowess to ratchet up the intimacy level, but their playful and light approach to the main melody lines round the track out and offer a degree of realism. “everything” features another fun lyrical flip as Kehlani admires the full picture of their newfound partner, singing “it’s the everything for me.” The track represents a stripped-down orchestral piece for Kehlani to do some more vocal acrobatics with a quieter, more tender sound. “wondering/wandering” closes things out with a positive banger about finding happiness in uncertainty and finding peace amidst all the drama – and what better representation of freedom than some virtuosic basslines from the one and only Thundercat underneath?

Kehlani’s music has always been strong due to the vocal talent on display, but due to all of the highly publicized drama – relationship and otherwise – in their life, when they let us into some more personal content it adds an entirely new degree of meaning to their emotional outpourings. With some great choruses and improved writing, they’ve done it again.  

Favourite Tracks: up at night, melt, altar, more than i should, get me started

Least Favourite Track: wish i never

Score: 8/10

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