Kehlani – ‘SweetSexySavage’ Review

TV talent show exile whose R&B pop has a dark underbelly

Although Kehlani Parrish began her career as a member of Pop Lyfe, a teen band who finished fourth on America’s Got Talent, she’s no cookie-cutter R&B queen. “Everything I do / I do with passion,” this tattooed rising star sings on ‘CRZY’. “If I gotta be a b***h / I’m-a be a bad one.” The 21-year-old from Oakland in California clearly has attitude, but it’s her honesty that makes ‘SweetSexySavage’ such a compelling debut album. Last March, it was reported that Kehlani had been hospitalised following an apparent suicide attempt, and ‘Piece Of Mind’ could be read as a song about hitting reset. “Trying to forget all the unnecessary thoughts from my head / Man, it was pretty scary,” she sings over deceptively breezy beats.

Elsewhere, she recalls her tough upbringing on ‘Not Used To It’ and warns a would-be lover on ‘Do U Dirty’ that the “hood in me” beats the “good in me”. ‘SweetSexySavage’ also contains intriguing relationship songs. The Akon-sampling trap-pop jam ‘Undercover’ is about keeping a love affair secret, while standout ballad ‘Advice’ deals with a crushing realisation, “How is the man of my dreams not a man of his word?” Kehlani says she’s attracted to both genders and wrote ‘Distraction’, a sleek R&B come-on, about a woman she fancied but didn’t want anything serious with.

Set off by her distinctive voice,  sweet but tough like honeycomb, the album is cohesive without feeling too samey. She channels TLC on the folky R&B ballad ‘Escape’, rides an early-Rihanna bounce on ‘Get Like’, and pulls off a darker hip-hop vibe on ‘Not Used To It’. The album ends with a gospel-tinged ballad called ‘Thank You’, on which Kehlani sings about her “growth”. Given her rough 2016, it’s easy to forgive this one moment of well-meaning cheesiness. Kehlani’s 17-track debut album establishes her as a multi-faceted talent, but it’s a bit too long.

Less interesting songs like ‘In My Feelings’ and ‘Hold Me By The Heart’ should probably have been chopped, but they don’t prevent her from making a great first impression. When she sings,“Ain’t nothin ’bout me basic,” on ‘CRZY’, it’s hard to disagree.

Read more: Kehlani Interviewed: how she turned hard times into a stunning, positive debut album