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You Should Be Here
The empowerment anthem is a cornerstone of pop music: take a fuzzy platitude—“Baby, you’re a firework,” “Baby, I was born this way,” “Baby, this is your day”—and transpose it as a sky-high pop hook. Less common and more overwrought, but with similar intention is the It Could Happen to You narrative track, the clearest example being TLC’s cautionary “Waterfalls.” You know the template: Verse A features one perspective, verse B features another, and somehow the moralizing comes together in the bridge. “Waterfalls” was great because it was timely and directly illuminated stories about drug abuse and HIV/AIDS without being preachy.
On “Bright,” from her latest mixtape, You Should Be Here, Oakland singer Kehlani takes a similar approach with stunning results. A late-album soft blues-pop oasis, it’s a story about self-love featuring atypical protagonists: A curly-haired girl tells herself “I don’t look like them, I don’t look like her, and I don’t want what’s on my head,” and a young boy with thin arms grapples with ideas of masculinity. Kehlani sees people in 3D. She knows the finer points to these stories but doesn’t belabor the point: “You are what you choose to be, it’s not up to no one else.” What “Bright” does is magnify Kehlani’s songwriting prowess, similarly self-assured and empathetic as Frank Ocean or contemporary R&B great Dawn Richardson with the toughness of Ty Dolla or Jeremih.
She’s an exemplary singer, but that’s not what makes her great. Aside from the strength of her voice, which bubbles at top range like Lil Mo’ and is suede-soft down below like Jojo, Kehlani’s imagination for storytelling is what sets You Should Be Here apart from its current R&B-pop corollaries. Unlike Jhene Aiko, ,SZA or Tinashe, and even PartyNextDoor, Kehlani’s not opaque. A journalist might say she doesn’t bury the lede. “They didn’t want me then, they want me now,” goes the eat dust, come-up story “How That Shit Taste.” And on the next track, “Jealous,” about an overzealous, ’gram-obsessed jump-off, she comes straight out with it: “Pretty soon I’ma take your phone, or you should it hide it in your pockets ’til you get home.” On the music box ballad “The Letter,” Kehlani goes deeper into her inner conflicts and talks to her mother: “If you weren’t gonna guide me, why bring me into the light?” It’s a cutting, heartbreaking turn of phrase, the first time a song’s made me shed a tear since Frank Ocean’s “We All Try.” Thriving amidst the emotional frontloading and pettiness of young adulthood is a universal ambition. Kehlani doesn’t have the secret—none of us do—but she’s got both specificity and a knack for flipping the archetype of the wounded young girl, and that’s got to be a salve for a young person in the thick of it.
Kehlani’s got both specificity and a knack for flipping the archetype of the wounded young girl, and that’s got to be a salve for a young person in the thick of it.
In Kehlani’s world, dudes are just trying to keep up. “We could catch a flight out to London, go to the mall, spend a lump sum,” she sings on “The Way,” accompanied by Chance the Rapper. The two have collaborated before, but this time there are sparks. Kehlani ripples like a rapper over the elongated, mellow production, setting up the attraction, before Chance slides in with the specifics, moving from slow to fast, burning through three different flows. It’s a playful take on the classic R&B flirt track, with Kehlani in the driver’s seat.
Since Kehlani's able to do a lot of different things with her tone and cadence, producer and pianist Jahaan Sweet gives her a muted, emotional foundation. It's not an easy task for beatmakers to stay in the cut and not compete with the vocal track. Kehlani's team manages to create a musical vibe that's part-now and part-timeless, similar to Quadron's enveloping digital/orchestral vibe. Though she’s working within R&B’s recently revamped synth palette, Kehlani sounds much different than the rest. Part of that is because she might be one of the best young singers out, but it’s also because she’s improving upon classic soul stories. It’s exciting seeing a woman at the helm of a project like this; You Should Be Here has the energy and prescience of Rihanna — if Rihanna were a songwriter. Trey Songz and The-Dream can gripe on tracks about smart phones and Omarion can make a run for dancehall licks, but Kehlani’s pulling all these ideas together into something that feels original and authentic and, somehow just slightly transgressive.
Anupa Mistry is a writer living in Toronto. Follow her @_anupa.