Kehlani Ashley Parrish is one of the latest popstars to emerge from talent show aftermath. Being lead singer of the group PopLyfe, who finished fourth in the sixth season of America’s Got Talent back in 2011, Kehlani was one of the stronger vocalists in the group and managed to secure herself some studio time following her self-release of a solo track on SoundCloud entitled ANTISUMMERLUV. Having been reluctant to pursue anything music-related for the proceeding years following her short taste of fame as part of PopLyfe, Parrish lived a frugal existence, typically moving between friends’ houses, sleeping on their couches and eventually resorting to petty theft in order to sustain herself. Therefore, her offer from Nick Cannon, the host of America’s Got Talent at the time of PopLyfe’s run in the show, to record what would eventually become Could 19, the singer’s first studio mixtape, was the rescue Parrish — now recording under just her first name, Kehlani — needed. Cloud 19 was met with respectable critical and commercial success, which saw Kehlani rise back into the public eye, even opening for G-Eazy and securing features from the likes of Chance the Rapper and BJ the Chicago Kid on her second mixtape, You Should Be Here. Once again, this mixtape was received well by critics and fans and continued Kehlani’s rapid rise to prominence, which leads the up-and-coming singer to the release of her debut on Atlantic Records, SweetSexySavage. This debut was a long time coming, with its first two singles, CRZY and Distraction, being released back in July of 2016. Distraction was the only one of these two tracks to leave an impression on me, and the other tracks teased up until the release of SweetSexySavage didn’t stand out to me, despite some good ideas being conveyed. They typically featured some passable production, the odd nice melody, the occasional good use of organic instrumentation, but Kehlani’s voice sounded largely forgettable on most of these tracks. It seems that the singer is going for a style of singing akin to that of other female vocalists in the contemporary R&B game, but it just came across to me as affected and disappointingly nondescript at times. The feelings I have towards most of the singles unfortunately translate to the album at large, with most of the cuts on here being often unmemorable and of an all too similar sound and style, which is made even more noticeable by this album’s bloated 17 tracks and hour-long runtime. Ultimately, these problems leave this record and Kehlani as an artist lacking a definitive musical identity, even in spite of the handful of good ideas that work their way into a portion of these cuts.
SweetSexySavage gets off to a relatively promising start, following an interesting spoken-word introduction from poet Reyna Biddy, which centrally concerns other people’s assumptions about her, specifically as a woman. The poem featured here is very impressive and, seeing as I was unaware that it was the work of a professional poet at the time of my first listen, I mistakenly assumed it was Kehlani’s work, which raised my expectations for the lyrical content of the album. Unfortunately, Kehlani does not meet these expectations, with this album’s lyrical content largely consisting of unmemorable and uneventful recitations of the ups and downs of the singer’s life paired with forced and bland attempts at conveying the ‘savage’ side to the singer. For instance, a line like, “If I gotta be a bitch, then I’mma be a bad one” from CRZY is pretty much as close as Kehlani gets to wordplay on SweetSexySavage, and the results are mixed. With largely uninteresting lyrics, it’s also a shame that Kehlani’s vocal performances don’t seem to be quite up to the standard of the ability she has shown in the past. Her voice, whilst perfectly melodious and capable, lacks much personality and individuality, instead sounding somewhat generic amidst the current musical climate that has seen many female contemporary R&B singers gain significant footing in the industry.
Following the interesting introduction, Keep On continues the promising start with some of the better production on the album. The beat, whilst simplistic, is played off rather well, and the smooth walking bass that constantly hangs in the background complements Kehlani’s style of singing nicely. As previously stated, whilst Kehlani’s voice doesn’t impress me as much as it has done in the past on SweetSexySavage, her performance on this cut features some of the most interesting vocal melodies on the album and demonstrates her respectable adaptability, with the singer utilising a very soft delivery at the beginning of the track but projecting more and reaching higher up into her range during the chorus. Whilst not an amazing track, it certainly displayed some of the good ideas that turn up on this album more explicitly than some other cuts. The following track, Distraction, proves to be a highlight in the tracklisting as I had expected, with some lovely vocal harmonies being applied very well and one of the catchiest choruses on this whole project. The production is also a lot more interesting on this track, with a distinctly trap-flavoured beat on the chorus that goes over well, as well as some nice but subtle synth leads and bass used on the verses. Again, this track is certainly nothing particularly special, rather it fits into the contemporary R&B idiom pretty neatly, but it nonetheless showcases some of the best qualities of the record.
Unfortunately, there are a significant amount of songs on SweetSexySavage that retain very few memorable qualities. Piece of Mind, for instance, begins the trend of the relatively drab production that recurs on numerous cuts on this record. The beat and instrumental are simplistic not in a complementary way, rather in a way that lacks any noteworthy traits and is forgotten pretty quickly. It’s tracks like this where the bland production, along with Kehlani’s slightly wanting vocal performance and forgettable lyrics, adds up to a track that isn’t terrible, but certainly isn’t memorable in any particular way either. Undercover suffers from many of the same problems, although the pretty acoustic guitar that is well-incorporated into the introduction and bridge adds a nice flavour to the song and provides at least one element that proves to be memorable. Then again, it does make me think that perhaps SweetSexySavage would have benefited from some more organic instrumentation being used in conjunction with the trap-influenced production to make for some much more interesting instrumentals that could also potentially complement Kehlani’s voice a lot more fittingly.
Overall, Kehlani’s debut album displays more regression for the artist than progression, with many of the issues I have with this project not having appeared on her two mixtapes prior to its release. There are enough good moments on this record that redeem it from complete redundancy, but it’s still a rather mediocre debut, especially given the higher quality of content on Kehlani’s previous work. All is not lost for the singer’s potential, however, as she has already made it clear that she can go quite far, plus the better moments on SweetSexySavage show that with more focus and a slight revision to her approach to singing and writing music, a second Kehlani album could prove to be significantly more successful.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10