Since Kehlani first announced the name of her debut album, SweetSexySavage, she placed herself within the R&B tradition drawing a parallel to TLC’s much-lauded CrazySexyCool. The video for “Distraction” continued this trend since she moves between different monochromatic rooms similarly to the video for Destiny Child’s 1999 hit “Say My Name”.
Even though Kehlani’s You Should Be Here was one of my personal music highlights from 2015, I still thought she was setting the bar a bit too high for her debut album. At the very least, I knew I was going to listen to this album with a particularly critical ear. While I don’t think SweetSexySavage comes close to matching these R&B classics, I do believe a handful of the tracks still make it a successful first album.
The album certainly opens strong. “Keep On” is a great twist on the R&B trope of the singer lamenting their unfaithful and problematic partner. Here the roles are flipped, and Kehlani is causing the problems and wonders how her partner keeps on taking her back. Lyrically, it features Kehlani’s admirable self-aware honesty. The amazing jazz band instrumentals and funky beat do actually take me back to TLC’s “Diggin on You”.
“Distraction” and “Undercover” continue the momentum with their catchy beats and lyrics . It’s not surprising Kehlani chose “Distraction” to be a single. And I’ve had “Undercover” on repeat for over a week now.
Unfortunately after this point it begins alternating between tracks I like and dislike for a while. My primary issue with the album as a whole is the often heavy-handed nature of the production. Sometimes the bass is too heavy, the production too chaotic, or a few too many melodic lines. To Kehlani’s credit, her vocals are strong enough to keep up with an overdone production; however, it comes off more as a shouting match than a collaboration. It creates a sort of musical immaturity she’s avoided in the past. For example, in “Hold Me By The Heart” the acoustic guitar chords feel irritatingly elementary. Likewise, the reflective track “Thank You” features a tempo and hype-man sample which both feel out of place.
It’s a bit disappointing since when her vocals work meld well with the production production, like on “Everything is Yours”, her sincerity, youth and honest introspection shine through.
One of the calming factors seems to be when her songs have clear influences from other artists. This sort of allusory engagement creates some of my favorite tracks on the album: “Too Much” interpolates Aaliyah’s “More Than A Woman”; the hook of “Get Like” reminds me of a softer version of Rihanna’s “You Da One”; “Escape” brilliantly flips the acoustic line from JoJo’s “Leave (Get Out)” and adds a more sophisticated message.
While the album frequently stumbles in the middle, “I Wanna Be” helps to close the album on a high-note with its catchy hook and light wavy beat.
Despite my criticisms about the album’s consistency and quality as a whole, its parts make it well worth the listen and I’m confident I’ll be frequently listening to numerous tracks for the foreseeable future.