Kehlani Parrish’s latest release SweetSexySavage follows in the footsteps of Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad and Aaliyah’s Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. The Oakland native is staking out her claim in R&B’s next generation with a young, bold voice, and skillful pop songwriting. Following her 2015 mixtape You Should be Here, SweetSexySavage has been highly anticipated, especially after its single, “Gangsta,” was featured on the star-studded and Grammy-nominated Suicide Squad soundtrack. You Should be Here launched Kehlani out of the Bay Area bubble with a feature from Chance the Rapper on the track “The Way;” SweetSexySavage follows the same trajectory of increasingly polished songwriting and innovative production.
Kehlani strikes an incredible balance between sultry and crystal clear vocals, and her vocal range is as impressive as her breadth of musical styles. The first track,“Undercover,” starts with a classical guitar riff, then launches into an upbeat pop rhythm with full bass and synth backing. On “CRZY,” the influence from Rihanna’s ANTI is obvious, with sparse instrumentation and a heavily syncopated drum track. “Personal” also nods to Rihanna with a cheeky “na na na,” just like on 2010’s “S&M.” This reference to the greats makes sense; SweetSexySavage itself is a reference to TLC’s iconic 1994 record, CrazySexyCool. If Kehlani hopes to carve out a place for herself among these R&B icons, SweetSexySavage is an impressive start.
Disguised within the heavily-produced pop tracks are some serious lyrical meditations on sex, love, and loss. Leading up to the release of SweetSexySavage, Kehlani was hospitalized after a suicide attempt—stemming in part from intense online bullying following rumours that she was cheating on her then-boyfriend, singer PARTYNEXTDOOR. “Advice,” “Escape,” and “Hold Me By the Heart,” the more melancholy songs on the album, can perhaps be attributed to this distress—on “Advice” Kehlani sings, “I almost lost my mind / I left myself behind / I almost crashed and fell right from the sky,”—but these tracks never lose the pop catchiness that is captivating throughout the album.
However, the overall impression is somewhat muddled and definitely too long. At 18 tracks, the album’s length is not notably different from Kehlani’s 2015 mixtape. Despite the diverse sounds throughout, standout tracks get lost between ones that are catchy, but don’t add much depth to the overall album. Kehlani could have hit harder with 12 excellent songs rather than 18 ranging from excellent to good-but-not-interesting. On every song, Kehlani has a lot to say, and despite the inventive lyricism, the album is exhausting by the end. Although this is probably a result of the pop and R&B conditioning that favours repetitive, easy-to-sing lyrics, on her next try, Kehlani should consider hiring a good editor.
“Distraction,” “Keep On,” “Undercover”:
Ariana Grande, Tinashe, Rihanna
“If I gotta be abitch, I’mma be a bad one” (CRZY)