“Working on being softer,” Kehlani says of their current mindset on ‘Little Story’, the opening track of their third album ‘Blue Water Road’, setting the tone for a record that’s full of gentle magic. On their 2017 debut ‘SweetSexySavage’, the Oakland, California singer and songwriter arrived in the mainstream with hard-hitting lines like ‘CRZY”s “If I gotta be a bitch, I’mma be a bad one.” Five years later, she’s swapped that badass braggadocio for a gentler, more secure kind of confidence.
‘Blue Water Road’ finds Kehlani in a good place in life, and that’s reflected in its songs. The darkness of 2020’s ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’ has dissipated and been replaced by breezy bops and odes to transformation. The orchestral rushes throughout lend the record layers of warmth and beauty, an aural representation of the star’s leaving behind the melancholy of the past to embrace a bright new land. Among the graceful R&B, there’s also tracks to soundtrack your pre-drinking – see ‘Any Given Sunday’ and the Justin Bieber-featuring ‘Up At Night’, both of which which provide moments of upbeat brilliance.
Lyrically, this album find Kehlani at their most intriguing. By their own admission, this is an artist whose focus has largely been on love, but ‘Blue Water Road’ sees them expand into new areas – including spirituality. On the crunchy, glowing groove of ‘Altar’, she narrates growing their relationships with the spirits of loved ones who’ve moved onto the afterlife. “So I put you on the altar / Stay just a little bit longer,” she sings joyously. “Laid it all out for you / Thought I felt you before / And now you’re closer.” It’s a beautiful moment – conceptually, lyrically and emotionally – and one that nails what Kehlani does best: affecting storytelling coupled with hook-filled songs.
She doesn’t do it all on this record alone. As well as Bieber, there are a handful of other features from artists at all levels. Toronto R&B singer Jessie Reyez joins Kehlani on the lust-lorn ‘More Than I Should’ for a smooth, sultry duet, while The Internet’s Syd lends her soft vocals to the whispery ‘Get Me Started’ – with irresistible results.
Towards ‘Blue Water Road’’s conclusion, things start to drift a little, ‘Everything’ feeling longer than its three-minute-27-second runtime and the Thundercat and Ambre-starring ‘Wondering/Wandering’ not quite landing as memorably as you’d hope. For the most part, though, this album finds Kehlani in spectacular form – softer, stronger and better than ever.
Release date: April 29