I met 19-year-old, Oakland-raised Kehlani at the 14th Street location of her favorite New York restaurant, Baohaus. At her recommendation, we ordered Birdhaus Baos—small fried chicken sandwiches wrapped in a Chinese bun—and sweet bao fries covered in a bright green pandan glaze, which were eaten by poking at each piece with a toothpick. Confident and precocious, Kehlani thinks quickly and shows considerable career savvy for someone so young. As her story unfolded over the course of our 45-minute meal, it became obvious that she's not your typical teen star. Self-possessed and self-reliant, she has a strong independent streak. She's the kind of genuine, charismatic person who is easy to be around, even though all I'd really done was ask questions while trying to keep up with her rapidfire synapses.
Her personality translates precisely to her music. The same unguarded sincerity is evident throughout her debut tape. Cloud 19, released this past August, is not just one of the most promising R&B debuts in recent history, but a front-to-back great record in its own right. Trained on a diet of neo- and classic soul, Kehlani—despite being a member of hip-hop crew HBK Gang—is a full-on rhythm and blues artist, one who prizes strong songwriting (she writes all her own material) and vocals. Over the past few years, R&B artists often adopt a demur, coyly enigmatic persona. Kehlani's charm is in her willful vulnerability. Where other artists glance and look away, she looks directly into your eyes. For a release that is in some ways very on-trend, Cloud 19 is nonetheless in its own universe.
Kehlani got involved in the music business when she was young. After a knee injury in junior high, she switched from dance (she'd had "Juilliard dreams") to her school's vocal department. One of her peers—the piano player for a local cover band—suggested she audition for his dad, who was managing the group. As it turned out, the kid's father was D'wayne Wiggins, founding member of Tony! Toni! Toné!, and brother to Raphael Saadiq. "I was hella scared," she admits. "[It was] the first time I really sang out. I sang to him and he was like, 'let's get it cracking.'" She spent the next three years performing covers of classic soul records in the group alongside Wiggins' sons. "[We were] intensely doing shows, up until we were like 16, and then we auditioned for America's Got Talent," says Kehlani. They ended up being finalists on the show, but after it ended, she returned to Oakland and the group went their separate ways. The next three years, she describes as a blur. "I went through a lot of growing up, being on the streets, being homeless, moving around, crib to crib to crib. Just trying to graduate high school. Then Nick Cannon called me."
Nick Cannon remembered her from her band's time on America's Got Talent, and had an idea for a project for her in Los Angeles. "It ended up being this crazy rap group that I just wasn't down for," says Kehlani, who doesn't seem to realize how unusual it is to have such confidence in your own vision at such a young age. "That's for them, you wanna rap, go rap, feel me. I'm an R&B singer."
She returned to Oakland and put out a song called "ANTISUMMERLUV" in summer 2013. Suddenly Nick Cannon was on her line yet again. "He called me and was like, 'Yo, I get your vision now! I get you, who you want to be as a solo artist. I respect it!'" She returned to L.A., and this time Cannon made sure she was taken care of. "He's like, 'Yo, you can't be running around here trying to make music and you can't even think about music when you're worrying about what you're going to eat and where you're going to sleep,'" she says. "He comes at it from an uncle perspective. Just trying to make sure I'm alive and safe and healthy. So he saved my life, and that's why I'm here today."
David Drake is a writer living in New York City. Follow him @somanyshrimp.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up? Who put you onto music as a kid?
My auntie. Single mom, raising two kids of hers and then me. I wasn't hers, but she raised me as hers. She was one of those soulful white women who only fucks with black guys. All her friends are these super neo-soul, eccentric African females. We grew up around that. All she played was neo-soul music. Neo-soul and OG R&B. You can ask me about hip-hop history, I have no idea. You can't ask me about a lot of current things, because for my entire life I was stuck in the early 2000s. Even before. Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, the Fugees, end of the '90s, early 2000s. Even TLC, Aaliyah, all that, until currently. I'm even just now, starting when I was 17, started listening to the radio, started listening to current things. Other than that, the only music I listened to that was current was the new neo soul albums, the new Jill Scott, the new Jamie Foxx, the new Chrisette Michele.
I was in art school and we had all these random classes, we'd listen to a lot of Bollywood, I'd listen to Spanish music—and I don't even speak Spanish, but Héctor Lavoe is amazing—we listened to French music like Edith Piaf, she's tight. I like cool vocal inflections, I like cool sounds. I pretty much listen to anything I think is good.
It's funny, I don't listen to too much rap. I don't listen to too much older hip-hop. If I do, it's Ja Rule. I'm stuck in that era for real, like the cute couples, hooks, the J.Lo and Tamia. Just when making love songs wasn't corny. And now everyone feels some type of way like everyone has to be harsh and bitches gotta be bad and unapproachable. I like to bring the soft factor. It's OK! I look like this, but it's OK to make music like that. It's OK to feel sometimes. You don't have to be a hard-ass. It's OK to have emotions.
When it comes to your actual vocal style—were there particular vocalists you emulated coming up, or that you were attracted to?
You start singing by singing what you hear. So everyone, when they first start singing, they naturally are singing like whatever they're hearing, because that's the only way you learned how to sing. So when I was growing up on Lauryn Hill, when I started singing her songs I literally trained my voice to be able to do runs. I trained my voice to be able to do certain things, and as I'm growing up, I started getting "Oh you sound like an old school singer. You sound like a Brandy, you sounded like Lauryn." Just basically the vocal inflections. Because that's what I listened to—that's what I was walking around the house in my headphones screaming out, that's what I was singing out. So I think when I transferred over to making my own music from doing cover songs, I just took my knowledge of—I won't even call it knowledge because at that point it's just instilled in me—but I took my voice and just put it on my shit.
How did you come to presenting yourself, your personality in your music? Was that a process, was it natural?
Oh definitely [a process]. For awhile I can honestly say I didn't know my sound because going from a cover band—I'm talking three years of covering OG R&B songs and old school—we took pride in real music so we never really did any current things, we always played hella homage to Prince and older stuff. Trying to figure out how I was going to enter myself into the young people's lane after being in a cover band was the most confusing shit ever. How am I going to do this without my bandmates? How am I going to make music without a band there? You mean I have to sing? I had never been in the studio. I only was on stage for three years. We maybe made one track in the studio. I didn't write it. I don't even think I was sharing my writing at that point because I considered it personal.
So when I got in the studio, I finally decide I really can't be afraid of my own potential. I really just started pushing my own buttons. Even though I'm not confident. So at first my music was kind of like older, really, really super R&B, like classic R&B, not like 2014, upbeat, feel-good.... My first couple of songs are "ANTISUMMERLUV," and "Raw and True." And "Raw and True" is the slowest, stringed-out…. Then I realized I'm getting told by young people, "Yo, your music's too old." I'm getting told by older people, "My grandkids don't listen to this, but I love it!" And I thought, you know, that's cool, but I want to inspire my age. I want to be able to hear even from 15-year-olds and up, that my music helped them.
So I took a step back, I realized I can make the stuff that I listen to. Like what I listen to, I'm totally capable of making it, I just have to sit down and really like hone in on my sound. And I think when I got with my main producer, Jahaan—and even when I got with Swagg [R'Celious], when I came to New York and made the beginning tracks with Cloud 19, I was like, this is what it is. This is really what it is. And I think I'm well aware of my sound and I'm able to create this kind of merge between underground and radio music, and have substance in your music.
How would you describe your vocal style?
I think because I was in a choir for so long, I wanted to show that having a good voice is important. Half these singers don't even care about what it sounds like. Their producers don't care, if it's catchy it's catchy, and it catches on. When's the last time you heard a real singer, like Monica and Brandy, and stuff like that? Besides like older people, like K. Michelle and Sevyn [Streeter]. But as far as my generation, my young people? I'm just hearing radio smashes, I'm just hearing girls make anything. It's like, damn, do you even know how to do backgrounds, are you interested, are you down to learn? So I'm just trying to hold it down for the singers.
I'm just trying to hold it down for the singers.
So tell me about how you put together Cloud 19.
I started the project last year, I came out here and met with this guy named Swagg [R'Celious] who produced "Fuck With You" and produced "First Position" and…maybe something else that's on my next project. And he was working with a guy named Jahaan who's kind of like his little bro, he was just interning and trying to get placements and shit. Jahaan ended up making "Getaway." And we were working on all that, then I started working with Hardy Indiigo out here too, who did my song "Collect Call," which isn't on the project. Basically I was just out here working. I was [in New York] for a month. I was only supposed to be here for a week, I was out here for a month couch-hopping, sleeping at studios, meeting random people and building relationships all by myself.
My strategy for making it easy on Nick Cannon is like—because there are so many people around rich people all the time that just want to suck and suck and suck from them, I just tell him, "Give me a plane ticket, throw me a hundred dollars to be alive for the next however many weeks, and I'll function." Connections, all that shit, music, I'll make it. So that's how me and him meet in the middle, you know. So I started working on all that, and I was supposed to drop it for my 19th birthday. Which was last April. So I got around to my 19th birthday and people started to find out about me, and I kind of let people get to my head a little bit, but I guess it all happened for a reason. They were just like, "Yo, you can't give out all this good music for free at one time on one project. You can't!" I was like, what? That's telling anybody who makes good music they can't put it out for free, and I feel like all my music is gonna be free for a second. And so—
[The food arrives]
OK, it looks crazy, but it's the best thing you'll ever eat in your life. Amazing, try it.
Dude! [Laughs.] So then we make the tracks, I tell them we've got to sit on this, let's just keep building until I feel like it's the right time. I was pressing to get my shit out during the summer, and as it started nearing towards fall, I'm like, Yo, kids are going back to school—I need them to be able to walk into school with my mixtape. I need them going back to school this fall listening to my shit so they can all talk to each other and spread the word, it can get them through class and whatnot. Because what I get a lot now is, "Yo, I listen to Kehlani before school because it calms me down!" Like, good shit. It was originally called III, called "three eyes," but it's spelled "i - i - i," and it was just about seeing and feeling like what people skip over a lot.
After that, what I realized is that when I talk about being in my own world, it's kind of like I'm on my own cloud, I'm on my own level. I've always kind of been in my own head. I'm a very visual person so I was like, call it Cloud 19. It still brings in the fact that I was gonna call my last mixtape 19, and this is tying it all together.
Two or three days after we said we were finished with the tape I made 'This Is How We Do Us" with Kyle Dion. Because he was out here, and it was like, OK are you going to go to the Wiz Khalifa show, and get in backstage, and be with your brothers—HBK, who I'm with—or are you going to go into the studio with Kyle Dion? And I ended up catting on everyone and going to the studio with Kyle. And I was like, he's out here from Miami, he wants to work with me, let's get it. And we made what ended up being my favorite song on the tape. That's how the whole Cloud 19 came together.
What's your process like in the studio? You write all your...
—Yeah. I don't even let people really co-write. I think writing and singing go together, but I treat them as two separate careers, because I write for others. If I'm writing for myself, I prefer to be with the producer. And then we can vibe out and throw ideas back and forth, and I'll basically let the producer play me a bunch of beats, until I vibe with one. I'll just freestyle to every, until I pick up one and think, OK, this is a good melody, then I'll sit down, listen to the beat. Usually, while I'm out in the world, I'll write down random concepts all the time, random two-liners, random one-liners, when I think of something, write it on my notepad. So then when I go to write a song, I have all these good concepts that I randomly thought of but didn't have the time to make full songs. Or, if I'm feeling it right there, I just go.
What's the next step?
Putting out some visuals. We shot [an "FWU" video, since released]. At that moment I hadn't decided yet if I wanted to be that artist that can sing and dance. Or just sing, and allow videos to be really creative and artsy. But then I realized I genuinely appreciate that, if you're good at that shit, do that shit and do it well. So I just sucked it up. It was kind of a confidence thing, because I hadn't danced in years due to music. So I was like, I'm going to enter myself back into a world that I had not touched.
What are you doing on this trip to New York?
A label flew me out, they wanted to show me their office.
How interested are you in signing?
For us, it's not like a life or death situation. It's a, well, what's going to be able to take me to a level I need to be taken to that I can't do on my own? Right now we're getting to the point where I'm getting thrown into categories with signed artists. And because I don't have the resources they have, I can't expand on the platforms they can on certain things. If I got into a label situation, they would have to allow me to do me. Then we would go. We understand the worth of how far and how big, not my voice, but my message could go. I just would never want it to be hindered by a label. My whole point here making music is to inspire, but you've got me out here talking about throwing drinks up at the club. So only if it's the right situation, and they're just down to let me rock.
What do you see as your message?
That it's OK to be yourself. I say this to everyone, whether I have to go in on it every day on Twitter, or I have to say it in my music, it's OK to be yourself, 100 percent. People will half-ass themselves. Then they go to a certain place, act a certain way. Show up to certain people, act a certain way. With me, what you see is what you get all the time. The other half of it is don't judge a book by its cover. Because I look rough. I'm from Oakland, I'm 19—the stereotype of a tatted 19-year-old mixed girl from Oakland is not an inspirational R&B singer. Especially not a bisexual inspirational R&B singer. I think it's just proving to people that you don't have to hide anything about yourself. If you're comfortable with it, why force yourself to be uncomfortable to make other people comfortable.