2016 was pretty turbulent for Kehlani, bringing the highs – single Gangsta was on the soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated ‘Suicide Squad’, whilst her album You Should Be Here earned a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album – and the deepest low of being hospitalised after a failed suicide attempt. The singer brings her tempestuous year into the spotlight in her latest album SweetSexySavage; with the help of producers Pop & Oak and Jahaan Sweet, she brings her audience along for the re-establishment of her self-efficacy.
Merging R&B sounds with her soulful vocal talent, Kehlani is not shy of showing her influences: the album title is a direct play on TLC’s 1994 album CrazySexyCool, whilst fifth track Undercover gives a nostalgic nod to Akon’s Don’t Matter, ten years after its release. The singer has a lot to say, with the album bearing three main overall themes: the ability to be open about sexuality (the sleek and sexy Distraction is about a woman she fancied but didn’t want to commit to, all the while boasting the supremacy of the independent woman by setting disinterested boundaries), reclamation of female empowerment (“If I gotta be a bitch, I’mma be a bad one,” she taunts on CRZY) and the importance of mental strength (Piece Of Mind could be perceived as a tale of starting fresh: “Trying to forget all the unnecessary thoughts from my head / Man, it was pretty scary,”).
Whilst the 17-track album has been previously criticised for being too long, it lets us into the mind of the R&B queen and her adverse and relatable struggles with love – moody ballad Everything Is Yours is soaked in self-loathing, confessing her devotions whilst simultaneously giving up on them. Do U Dirty promotes Kehlani’s new-found feistiness with the lyrics “I could f*** you now and years later on/ You gon’ be stuck, just reminiscing”. Undercover deals with a sordid affair, whilst standout track Advice revolves around a heart-breaking realisation: “How is the man of my dreams not a man of his word?”.
The album opens with a fifty-nine second-long spoken poem simply titled Intro, in which she gives a grippingly raw apology to those “who ever felt they took a loss with [her]”. This being the opening, the audience are given a clear premeditation of what the album will be based around. It is sure to say that the cheating accusations that led Kehlani to her suicide attempt hurt many people involved – including fans – and the words of Intro are voiced with such a subtle passion which would make even those who have been unaffected by the singer’s troubles feel acknowledged. The beautiful opening synthesizes with ending ballad Thank You, which appears as a nod to those who have given her strength through her turmoil. Tinted with gospel sounds, Kehlani sings about her personal growth throughout the past 10 months since her suicide attempt and hints that this still isn’t the pinnacle of her career nor her mental and moral being (“I wanna be better than I was/ Better than I am”).
The ‘reformed’ singer has a lot to say and the album – albeit long – is sexy, emotional and honest, filling the void between self-loathing and self-confidence to show that dark times do not persist forever. Kehlani shows that despite the hardest of struggles, she is back on top and knows her abilities, utilising that knowledge to liberate her listeners – her honesty is what really makes SweetSexySavage so compelling.