Kehlani’s ‘SweetSexySavage’: Album Review

Bianca Gracie | January 27, 2017 9:00 am
Kehlani first cast her charming spell on us with the 2015 release of her second (and Grammy-nominated) mixtape, You Should Be Here. While it catapulted the Oakland native into the mainstream, she maintained a uniqueness and vulnerability that set her apart from her R&B peers.

Now 21 years old, she delivers her debut album SweetSexySavage (out ). But rather than pushing beyond sonic or lyrical expectations, the LP settles into her comfort zone and reverts back to the dynamics of the mixtape that got her critical acclaim.

SweetSexySavage opens with spoken word about the intricacies of being a passionate woman who is trying to be understood in this modern world. It then leads into the first song of the album, “Keep On,” which fails to match the emotional impact of that poetic introduction. As we’ve heard from Kehlani before, she questions why this guy would even bother to take her back after all the things she put him through. The sunny, bouncing throwback melody isn’t enough for this to make a memorable imprint.

It’s easy to forget the actual opening track of the album when something brilliant like “Distraction” comes right after to take the spotlight. The song’s laid-back production reflects the theme perfectly, as Kehlani huskily sings (in a tone reminiscent of Brandy) about just enjoying a casual relationship and nothing more. The topics of love and womanhood are strung throughout SweetSexySavage, with brief interludes featuring Kehlani’s friends discussing their faults, mistakes and proud moments. While some of the messages are heartfelt, they can become redundant as Kehlani dives into those same topics on almost every song. The album does reach a peak, though, when its two standouts — “CRZY” and “Personal”— play back-to-back. And it’s so damn rewarding.

Following the drama surrounding cheating rumors, an alleged love triangle and a suicide attempt last spring, Kehlani returned with a commendable vengeance on “CRZY.” The singer proved there was sunshine after the rain, exuding confidence right from the start of the track: “Everything I do, I do with a passion / If I gotta be a bitch, I’ma be a bad one.” “Personal” elevates her DGAF mentality even further. Fueled by a commanding sample of Aaliyah’s “Come Over,” she channels the late singer’s chilled R&B flow. “I fuck with me heavy,” Kehlani broods. Despite all the drama she’s undergone over the last year, she doesn’t try to hide her flaws.

But that doesn’t distract from some of the album’s flaws. The singles that preceded the LP (“CRZY,” the Akon-interpolating “Undercover,” “Advice”) hold the bulk of the creativity, so it was a smart move selecting those to represent the project. But the remaining songs either get lost in the shadows of those cuts or blandly slip into the cracks. “Too Much” seems lifted from recording sessions from Aaliyah’s final album, yet it delivers a paint-by-numbers chorus. “Do U Dirty” has Kehlani proudly talking her shit but it frustratingly doesn’t deliver on the potential. The a-touch-too-pretty melody and vocal tone carrying the track means lyrics like “I could fuck you now and years later on / You gon’ be stuck, just reminiscing” don’t hit as hard as they could.

Fans and casual listeners of Kehlani have both become familiar with her stories of feeling lost in love, searching for life’s meaning and shutting down fuckboys. Yet she relies on those themes too heavily on SweetSexySavage, which drowns out its impressive moments. For the Cali girl to soar even higher, she’ll need to tell a newer, fresher tale.

Score: 3/5

Bianca Gracie

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