Kehlani’s Songs of Self-Improvement | The New Yorker

The singer-songwriter Kehlani spent the first few years of their music career oscillating between their teen-pop origins and their more provocative R. & B. ambitions. The performer’s songs consistently glowed with romantic possibility, thanks primarily to the warm, lovely undertones of their incandescent voice, and their ability to find nuance in even the most destructive dalliances. Kehlani’s first studio album, “SweetSexySavage,” from 2017, was a buoyant record of play and seduction, and with each subsequent release they seemed to unpack their own curiosities and identity. Like many young contemporary R. & B. musicians, Kehlani traded in the specificities of millennial situationships: reprimanding a date for tweeting out the details of their evening together (“Jealous”), going out at night just to stage a run-in with an ex (“Hate the Club”). In 2020, Kehlani released “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t,” a moody record of appetite and impulse. Delivered into the early pandemic, the album’s musings on isolation and proximity felt particularly prescient. “I get real accountable when I’m alone,” they sang on the opener, “Toxic,” a track about the addictive pull of a bad relationship.

As with many artists, the pandemic years have prompted a musical and personal shift for Kehlani. Starting in September, 2020, they embarked on a yearlong “ceremony process,” an undefined spiritual practice that included getting sober and going out only to fulfill work obligations. The music Kehlani made during this time is the basis of their sensitive third album, “blue water road,” released last week. Produced primarily by their longtime collaborator Pop Wansel, the album features delicate keys and guitar, brushed with gentle orchestral flourishes—sounds that feel like rinsing until the water runs clear. It is Kehlani’s most considered work, delving into spirituality and self-acceptance, a turn reflected by a softer soul palette and soothing aquatic motifs. The music is bright, the writing is smoothed down, and the washed-out, open arrangements allow the warmth and fullness of their voice to come through. The artist has described the album as a “glass house,” saying that it’s “light, transparent, and the sun is shining right through it.” But, comparing the cleansing weightlessness of this record to the noxious romantic machinations of the last one, the Biblical metaphor seems to apply, too: no throwing stones.

As beach sounds give way to liquid guitars on the album’s opener, “little story,” Kehlani takes stock of their flaws and failings (“Wouldn’t say I’m a lie, but I’m not always honest / I ain’t come through, but that’s why I ain’t promise,” they sing), envisioning a second chance. Connection and attachment are recurring themes, and Kehlani envisions a greater sense of intimacy with tender serenades. “Inch of space feels broken-hearted / Across the bed feels way too far and / Wonder when they see just one, do they see us two?” they sing on “melt,” a gentle, throbbing track about contact and devotion. Singing the hook, Kehlani holds onto each “you” before letting it evaporate at the end of a long vocal run. On the single, “altar,” love extends beyond the veil of death (“Fresh white flowers and a new tea light / Nine cups of water, still water”). Unusually specific and material, it is among Kehlani’s most stirring songs.

Kehlani still writes of attraction and sex on “blue water road,” but the subject inspires closeness instead of alienation. The quietly symphonic “everything” uncovers an affinity beyond sensuality. “I could blame it on the physical / I could blame it on your lips, your touch, your kiss / You know, real traditional,” they sing, “​​but your love’s too original.” “Get me started,” a duet with Syd, another player who has recently sought self-improvement in pensive, emotionally literate R. & B., is an understated chronicle of relationship strife, complete with dwindling sexual chemistry and attempts at diagnosis. (“It ain’t been the same between us / Where’s the disconnection?”) Their irritation escalates, but their hushed tones betray the bluntness of the lyrics: they are desperately searching for a reason to stay together. It’s a far cry from “F&MU,” from the last record, in which Kehlani wrote of make-up sex as not just reimbursement for previous hostility but as a reason to fight in the first place.

The album has its detours—both the eighties-sampling “wish i never” and the strip-club seduction “any given sunday” seem tonally inconsistent with the rest of the album, if not entirely out of place—yet what emerges is an artist’s sincere pursuit of serenity. Rippling instrumentation skips along the ridges of restrained drums on the closer, “wondering/wandering,” a winding song in which Kehlani sings, calmly and expectantly, of learning trust and patience, her echoing hook accentuated by sonorous harmonies from Thundercat. Of course, no such path is linear. On the bass-driven “more than i should,” Kehlani anguishes over a friendship that is quickly developing into an affair. The song is propelled by the contradiction between what is expected and what is true, the pull between the person she wants and the person she is with. But even this rare moment of unrest feels light and liberating.

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