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Kehlani Was Good, And Now She’s Great

9 min read
With one quatrain buried deep into her new album It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, Kehlani Parrish offers what could be a mission statement for her career so far: “I got bodies I’ma take to the grave/ I got girls I wanna give my last name/ No regrets, don’t got no shame/ Playin’ no games,…
Kehlani Was Good, And Now She’s Great

With one quatrain buried deep into her new album It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, Kehlani Parrish offers what could be a mission statement for her career so far: “I got bodies I’ma take to the grave/ I got girls I wanna give my last name/ No regrets, don’t got no shame/ Playin’ no games, play my way.”

Kehlani became one of R&B’s biggest stars by neither taking nor dishing out any bullshit, by being radically vulnerable about her pains and passions. In short, she keeps it real, both on her records and online. It helps that she often does so in the context of R&B songs as appealing as “Serial Lover,” the one that yielded those memorable lyrics. Kehlani seasons these confessionals with style, nuance, and boundless charisma. In this case, that involves using a straightforward midtempo R&B track to subvert pervasive stereotypes about promiscuity and sexuality within the hip-hop mainstream, while also recognizing her own need to slow down and be single for a while. It’s complicated, but with Kehlani intuitively gliding across subtly booming guitar loop, the pleasures are simple.

It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is full of songs that rich. Taken together, they are the sound of Kehlani coming into her own, an obvious talent delivering her first masterpiece. This is the artist she’s been growing into for the better part of a decade: an intimate, incisive writer; a conversational singer spinning effortless beauty out of thin air; a curator capable of assembling beats from dozens of cowriters and producers into a coherent, immaculate vibe. In an EW profile published upon the album’s release last week, one of those producers, G. Ry, opined, “She’s our generation’s Aaliyah in some way.” Kehlani was among the many who took issue with the comparison, but with this album, she presents herself as someone with the potential to build such a legacy, an iconic R&B star on the precipice of pop.

It wasn’t always clear she’d reach this breakthrough. After splitting from PopLyfe, a teenage covers act that appeared on America’s Got Talent, Kehlani launched a solo career under the guidance of that show’s host, Nick Cannon. Early mixtapes Cloud 19 and You Should Be Here showed flickers of brilliance, but 2017’s official debut album SweetSexySavage was a creative misstep. Despite typically confident performances from Kehlani and a promising connection to her genre’s pop-adjacent ’90s classics, the songs were overly reliant on overblown production that substituted bombast for tight songwriting, as if Atlantic was trying to force a crossover to Top 40 radio. In hindsight, she considers SweetSexySavage “rushed,” which ironically led to an album that seems to drag on forever.

Her career has continued to flourish; her abundant guest features have included turns alongside artists as big as Eminem, Cardi B, and Justin Bieber. Yet the years have been personally tumultuous for Kehlani; in 2016, she attempted suicide after being widely shamed when an Instagram post from fellow R&B star PartyNextDoor led the public to believe she was cheating on NBA star Kyrie Irving. (In reality, she and Irving had quietly broken things off.) After causing a minor stir by coming out as pansexual in 2018, she gave birth to a baby girl in 2019 just after releasing the solid stopgap mixtape While We Wait. This past New Year’s Day, her friend and longtime collaborator Lexii Alijai died of an overdose. (Kehlani devoted It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’s final track to a posthumous Lexii verse.)

And then there was Kehlani’s relationship with the rapper YG, which looms large throughout the new album. The couple began dating last fall, but — partially due to viral footage of YG cheating on Kehlani — their romance flamed out spectacularly, leading to an exchange of diss tracks between the artists. That soap opera often takes center stage on It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, which takes its title from a sentence Kehlani supposedly uttered while discussing her YG breakup with Drake. Amidst soulful, shadowy production that wouldn’t be out of place on one of the 6 God’s own albums, Kehlani returns to her favored subjects — sexual harmony, romantic discord, the push and pull between independence and longing — telling vivid interpersonal stories that breeze by despite their heavy emotional content.

Some of them seem specific to dating YG, who has made his gangland background central to his public persona, particularly the plaintive sigh “Bad News” and the more hopeful Jhené Aiko collab “Change Your Life,” both of which find her pleading with a love interest to consider alternate trajectories beyond the set. “Make you wanna give all that shit up,” she softly emotes. “Make you wanna spend that time on us.” The multi-segmented “Open (Passionate)” wrestles with the unique temptations facing lovers who make their living in show business, often thousands of miles apart: “You’re on tour, in and out them stadiums/ And there’s bitches backstage, tryna upstage me.” Even if you’ve never dated a gangsta rapper, the exquisite, understated production and Kehlani’s easy way with melody act as guideposts into emotional territory anyone can relate to.

Elsewhere, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is broader but no less personal. On “Hate The Club,” a slow-burn highlight speckled with Masego’s jazzy saxophone flourishes, Kehlani works up the liquid courage to turn a crush into a flirtation: “Damn, you know I hate the club/ But I came ’cause I knew you’d show up/ Maybe if I drink enough/ I’ll make my way over to ya.” The astrology-themed seduction “Water” hinges on a characteristically explicit hook: “Damn, I ain’t been this wet in years.” A similar frankness defines the tracks that engage with the fallout from love gone wrong. “Problematic/ You know that dick always been problematic,” she sings on the hypnotically pulsing opener “Toxic,” backed by Ty Dolla $ign, another wildly talented R&B singer who carries himself with a rapper’s swagger.

Despite the binary implied by its title, the album thrives within the tensions that can make modern dating so messy, converting painful conflicts into smooth, twilit R&B. The Tory Lanez duet “Can I” portrays the genesis of an illicit relationship, while the Lucky Daye collab “Can You Blame Me” zeroes in on a different obstacle to intimacy: pride. “F&MU” (short for “Fuck & Make Up”) joins the storied canon of songs about sex as a means of conflict resolution. Although “Grieving” initially stands out for the appearance of indie-electronic star James Blake’s unmistakably lush elocution, Kehlani’s internal struggle with regret and relief is what ultimately elevates the song.

Blake has often functioned as a special sauce for A-list rap and R&B stars looking to spice up their sound, but few have used him as effectively as Kehlani does. His own particular disaffection becomes a sort of Greek chorus, standing in for a whole world of lovelorn frustrations and then merging with her own impassioned sorrow. It’s just one instance of her artful touch on an album brimming with them. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is textured but immediate, raw yet refined. An artist who made her reputation on radical vulnerability has delivered a meticulously honed creative statement without giving up her signature transparency. It’s the best version of Kehlani yet and one of the most contagiously listenable albums of the year.

CREDIT: Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

CHART WATCH

It finally happened: A new Drake project debuted and did not automatically debut at #1. Instead, per Billboard, Kenny Chesney’s Here And Now enters the Billboard 200 on top with 233,000 equivalent album units and 222,000 in sales — the third best sales total of the year behind BTS and the Weeknd. Many of those sales were album/ticket bundles, despite the fact that any plans for Chesney to go on tour are extremely up in the air right now. Here And Now is Chesney’s ninth #1 album, tying him with Garth Brooks for most among country artists.

On most weeks, 223,000 units would have been more than enough to put Drake’s self-consciously minor Dark Lane Demo Tapes at #1. Instead, he has to settle for #2, the first time one of Drake’s commercially available full-lengths has failed to debut at #1. (His 2009 breakthrough So Far Gone was first a free mixtape then a commercially released EP, and when the full tape finally hit streaming services last year it charted at #5.) Decline of an empire, or just a bump in the road? We’ll see next week, when Dark Lane Demo Tapes will surely continue to be a streaming behemoth. And we’ll really see whenever Drake’s official album drops this summer.

After Lil Baby, DaBaby, Lil Uzi Vert, and the Weeknd comes a new #7 peak for Megan Thee Stallion’s Suga, fueled by the surge in popularity for “Savage.” Post Malone is at #8, followed by Doja Cat’s Hot Pink at #9 — also a new peak, this one powered by Doja’s hit “Say So.” Bad Bunny closes out the top 10 at #10.

Just as Drake’s streak of #1 albums ends, his Young Money label-mate Nicki Minaj’s search for a #1 single is finally over. Doja Cat’s “Say So” rises to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 this week, getting its final boost from a new remix featuring Minaj. According to Billboard, “Say So” is Minaj’s 109th Hot 100 hit, the most an artist has recorded before hitting #1. It’s also Doja’s first chart-topper, and it beats out the other big superstar remix of the moment, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage,” in at #2. Even at #2, “Savage” is Megan’s best-charting single by far. It will be interesting to see if it can topple “Say So” before both songs flame out.

The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” falls to #3, followed by Drake’s “Toosie Slide” at #4, Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” at #5, and Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” at #6. Drake and Playboi Carti’s “Pain 1993″ debuts at #7, becoming Drake’s 38th top-10 hit and Carti’s first. (His prior peak was #29 with “Magnolia.”) Rounding out the top 10 are Post Malone’s “Circles,” DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar,” and Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions.”

POP FIVE

Ariana Grande & Justin Bieber – “Stuck With U”


For a requisite quarantine single, this is quite pleasant — at least until Justin Bieber shows up, still sounding as hokey as he did throughout Changes.

Lennon Stella – “Summer Feelings” (Feat. Charlie Puth)


A synth-pop Scooby Snack from Mr. Hungies himself and the perennially rising Ms. Stella, tasty if a bit lacking in nutritional value.

Breland – “Horse Ride”


Turns out Mr. “My Truck” is perfectly capable of shining without a brilliant Sam Hunt guest spot and is maybe here to carry the “Old Town Road” revolution to fruition. You’d think a straight-faced, banjo-laden rap song called “Horse Ride” arriving a year after Lil Nas X’s viral smash went supernova would be a craven late-breaking trend-hump, but no, this guy seems deeply invested in the idea of country-rap for a new generation.

Yebba – “Distance”


Yebba got several big looks last year via work with Mark Ronson, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith, and now she’s starting to roll out out her debut album. It’s tastefully whispery retro easy listening pop that sounds more like, say, Natalie Prass than somebody who is working with some of the biggest names in mainstream music.

NOTD & Astrid S – “I Don’t Know Why”


It’s like Chvrches trying to make a Carly Rae Jepsen song. I like it!

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Adele checked in from isolation with a rare social media post on her birthday. [Instagram]
  • “Daisies,” the first single from Katy Perry’s new album, is out 5/15. [Twitter]
  • Billie Eilish filed a restraining order against an obsessed fan who showed up at her house. The complaint also notes that he did not practice social distancing measures. [TMZ]
  • Eilish also launched an Apple Music radio show with her dad. [LA Times]
  • Diplo “had an entire ass baby during quarantine,” a son named Pace with former Miss Universe contestant Jevon King. [NBC]
  • Taylor Swift’s City Of Lover Concert film, filmed in Paris last year, will premiere on ABC 5/17. [Variety]
  • In other Taylor Swift news, she sold one of her private jets. [TMZ]
  • Dua Lipa broke down “Physical” for New York Times’ Diary Of A Song series. [NYT]
  • Selena Gomez has a quarantine cooking show coming to HBO Max. [THR]
  • Ellie Goulding shared a multi-tracked video of her performing “Worry About Me” on The Late Late Show. [YouTube]

HOLD ON WE’RE GOING HOME

i have nothing to add to the discourse about the adele discourse besides this perfect clickhole headline pic.twitter.com/avZzfWcLZF

— Rebecca Jennings (@rebexxxxa) May 7, 2020

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