Kehlani has had a busy year in 2020, despite the pandemic. There was the widely-acclaimed sophomore album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, which came three years after her debut effort. There are the inventive visuals she's been making, in part using her MacBook and a camera she bought with Best Buy curbside pickup. She's stayed actively involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. And her biggest priority—her baby daughter Adeya—continues to grow, mature, and spend time in the studio, as Kehlani records vocals for her next record.
Her priorities in life are evolving. She alludes to outside noise that she no longer has the bandwidth to entertain. During a time in which many Americans have had lots of opportunities to think and self-reflect, Kehlani has done the same in her music. The intro to It Was Good, “Toxic,” is a raw, soul-search that sets a tone of honesty for the rest of the project: “I get real accountable when I’m alone.”
Kehlani’s show on June 16 at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, her first in almost five months, was a sign of the times. The Audi Presents: Summer Drive-In Concert was put together to celebrate frontline and essential workers in Los Angeles. During a year when the country has leaned on them the most, Kehlani puts it simply: "They deserve moments of joy and a break." The set-up was not unlike that of a drive-in movie theater, but it featured a luxury we might continue to miss out on unless everyone wears their damn masks: live music.
Complex got on the phone with Kehlani before she took the socially-distant stage last night to talk about her new album, balancing studio time with mommy duty, and more. The interview, lightly edited for clarity, is below.
How have you been holding up during quarantine?
I've been good! I've been shooting a music video, spending time with my kid, and just trying to be present. I've been good.
As you were preparing for this drive-through concert, what is the biggest difference from other shows?
Well my concerts—I mean, a lot of concerts—tend to be based on connectivity. There are moments where you get to go and actually have eye-contact. [Being] super close with your supporters, sometimes they'll touch your hands. So I won't have that, and I won’t be able to see the reception to what I'm doing, because I don't know if I'm gonna be able to see them inside of their cars. I don't understand it fully. Everything is different.
It must be exciting to get to perform some of the new stuff.
Yeah, it's going to be nice. I mean, I'm just excited to sing.
Between your albums, you released a mixtape. Are there ever joints you make in the studio, where you decide if they're for a mixtape or an album?
Not the songs themselves. But I more so go into a period of time of recording like: "Okay, I'm going to focus on making a mixtape or I’m going to focus on making an album."
Are there more mixtapes in your future?
I'd like to focus on albums, but mixtapes are always fun.
You have five projects under your belt right now. Can you rank them?
Oh, God. Okay.
Take your time!
My best project was It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. My second-best project is You Should Be Here. My third best project—Oh no, my second-best project is While We Wait. My third-best project is You Should Be Here. My fourth-best project is SweetSexySavage. And then my fifth-best is Cloud 19.
I know it must be hard because they’re all kind of like your kids...
Oh, no. I feel like I know, just based on where I’ve grown in what areas. I feel like artists know.
Fill in the blank for me: the biggest difference between SweetSexySavage Kehlani and It Was Good Until It Wasn’t Kehlani is…?
She's grown. She's a mom now.
How did the collaboration with Tory Lanez happen on the album?
It was super natural. That was the homie, and as soon as I finished it I was like, "Okay, okay, perfect. I know who to send it to. I know whose voice sounds like it should just go right here." It was super natural.
Is there someone you haven't collaborated with, who is on your checklist to work with one day?
Of course there is. Of course, I love Nicki Minaj. There's many people. I really want my peer group to collaborate more. Like, the people that people group me with and say that we are each others’ peers. I wish we collaborated more. Me and all the girls that I get grouped in with, I would love that, personally.
Now that you've put this record out, do you let it sit and take time away from the studio? Or are you back in there right now, making new stuff?
I've definitely had my time away from the studio, because [some] studios haven't been open, but I'm trying to get back into it. I'm just gonna let it happen naturally and safely. Safety is my number one priority because I have a child.
For sure. How is she? How is Adeya?
She's perfect! She's learning. She's talking. She's yelling. She's running. Every day, it feels like [she's doing] a new thing.
She looks so big on Instagram!
I know! She's so cute, it’s crazy.
Do you take her to the studio sometimes when you record?
Yeah, she loves it. She just runs around and sings along.
What are the challenges that come with that?
Really just trying to make sure that I'm aware of what she needs for growth and development. And that isn’t always sitting in a dark room while Mommy records. I have to make sure I have all the right toys for her to play with, and options [of things] for her to do. Sometimes it means leaving her at home, so that she can play in the backyard and I have somebody watch her for me, because it's more beneficial for her to be somewhere where she can play in the backyard and have access to all of the toys in her playroom, versus just coming along with me for the sake of me missing her. It's making those decisions.
How have you changed the most since having her?
I think I've just become more patient and more focused. I mean, I was always really focused, but I’m focusing on all aspects of life. There’s certain conversations and energy that I don’t entertain anymore, just because I know the boundaries I have with life because it all revolves around her.
I think most people agree that you’re a dominant force in R&B. Do you feel like there’s pressure that comes with that?
I try not to listen to that kind of stuff. Like, the first time I stepped in the studio to make a song was because I had a song to make, not because I felt like these people wanted a song from me, and they want this kind of song. I try to maintain that I’m an artist, and I make music because it’s what I love and how I express myself. That’s how I get through my feelings. So I don’t really apply that outer pressure on myself. But sometimes it has its moments, where I’m like, "Dang, I hope people enjoy it." I hope people enjoy something I worked so hard on, and so hard for. But at the end of the da,y it’s really about if I’m happy with what I put out.
What’s it like to be in the studio with you? Some artists go in and do their work, and then some basically have a party in the studio.
No, I'm not like a studio party person at all. I just absolutely understand how valuable time is, and how valuable money for studio time is. It’s really not something to play around with. The people that are there working with you—or even the engineers in the studio—all that could be better used by someone else, if you’re not willing to come in there and be serious and work. So it’s either me by myself, with my assistant and whoever I'm working with producer-wise, or maybe a couple homies I like to write with. But as far as other people that aren’t working, I don't ever get to a phase like that until the album is almost done, or the album is about to be turned in. Then I invite people to listen and give me feedback. I don’t do the party sessions at all, because then nothing happens.
Now that the album's out and you haven’t been in the studio, how have you been keeping busy?
You know, it's priorities. I co-parent, so I'll have days when my daughter goes with her dad, and I get those days to plan out: "Okay, I'm going to get some alone time or get some self caring." I think when you decide, like I did, to have a child, you know that's what's coming.
What have you been listening to during the quarantine?
I've been just trying to stay relaxed, so a lot of relaxing stuff. I listen to a lot of old stuff, a lot of soul music, a lot of neo-soul. Just kind of staying in a very chill, chill space. I think that heightened emotion and anxiety makes the body sick, too. I’m trying to stay calm in all areas, so my body stays calm and rides this out.
What are the things you're excited for when we can really go outside again?
Really, I can't wait to take my daughter to do some kids stuff. I was just thinking about how kids are at such a crucial age, and need to socialize. They need to see other people their age. They need to make friends and learn how to share, and all these very important things that kids only get from other kids. And many kids aren’t getting that right now. I’m wondering how that will affect them socially, and with their social development, and if that will bring on a certain generation of kids that are kind of weird and awkward with each other because they didn't get to socialize for a while. I just want to be able to, like, take my baby to the park with other babies and take her to baby class where she is meeting so many other babies and just having the time of her life.