By Mia Sato
Following the release of two well-received mixtapes, Kehlani, a dancer-turned-singer hailing from Oakland, California launched into the new year on a strong note with the release of her debut album SweetSexySavage (Atlantic Records). Though it’s her first major label effort, she’s by no means a newcomer: you may have heard her on Mind of Mine, last year’s release by R&B/pop contemporary Zayn, or on “Gangsta” off the “Suicide Squad” soundtrack. Despite her impressive list of accomplishments (she’s nominated for a Grammy this year), SweetSexySavage is fresh, charming, candid and feels surprisingly new in a genre that’s at times difficult to stand out in.
Most impressive about SweetSexySavage is the variety Kehlani offers listeners, both in terms of style and subject. On “Personal,” she’s self-assured, even distant, crooning to the object of her lack of affection that she’s better off without them. Skip forward to “In My Feelings” – a standout track with lush verses that builds to a chorus of an urgent splattering of beats – and you’ll find Kehlani asking herself, “If this isn’t love/ Why do I pick up my phone every time that you call?” Kehlani successfully balances a tenderness that seems honest without ever falling into the unaware-kitschy category. Then again on “Do U Dirty,” the songstress’ signature smooth swagger is on full display with lines like, “Swear you see the good in me/ But that don’t beat the hood in me.” By the way, all of the above tracks could easily be the next dance floor staple in a series of alternate universes.
Still, there’s room for Kehlani to grow on whatever she decides to record next. Listeners hear some experimentation with the poppy acoustic track “Hold Me By the Heart,” which meets the “sweet” part inSweetSexySavage but borders on the cliché that Kehlani manages to avoid elsewhere on the record. Nevertheless, a failure to finesse an unfamiliar sound is something she will undoubtedly overcome with time and a dedicated effort in the future, if she decides to venture more into the genre. Beyond that, tightening up the slumps and lulls is needed – the album runs just under an hour, and there’s an excess of songs so similar that it becomes difficult to discern which is which. If Kehlani can pull together a more thoughtfully and critically assembled follow up, she’ll show growth, artistry and give listeners a reason to come back from more.