It is sufficient to say that Kehlani has always lived life to the beat of their own drum. Be it their career, craft, or person, their fearless dedication to pursuing precisely what they want has always been commendable, if not a little awe-inspiring and daunting from the wayside.
Take their career beginnings, for example; even by scouting standards, being recruited aged 14 for group PopLyfe is a lot at such a tender age; by 16, Kehlani made it to America’s Got Talent, where Kehlani was told they “had real talent, but I don’t think you need the group.” Even then, it was clear that, while the Californian was not necessarily better off alone, they were more than capable of handling the pressure.
But sustained pressure across a long period of time can buckle the sturdiest of shoulders; living as a young orphan, moving forwards following surviving a suicide attempt in 2016, and kicking up the momentum of a career added to their lot. Later, contemplating gender identity, shifting sexuality, being diagnosed with dissociative disorder, and navigating parenthood for the first time begs the question: who is Kehlani, now?
New album, blue water road – and its accompanying documentary – seeks to answer this question, first and foremost for Kehlani themself. “I can tell how far I’ve come mentally and emotionally from just the place that I was in on my other projects,” they recall, comparing the “happy and bright” sound of debut album SweetSexySavage with the “dark, cooler, more mature” atmosphere of 2020’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, it’s apocalyptic cover capturing the essence of turmoil and uncertainty of a world which had recently nosedived into a pandemic.
“And whilst Kehlani’s music has always centred around their intense experience of love, on blue water road they cast their net further afield.”
Kehlani admits to NME that they “lost their passion for a while” as “there’s an erosion of an artist that happens in this industry”, and on the surface, you’d be forgiven for not noticing the change they have been through. But with their words and in their music, their newfound wisdom becomes clear; over the course of a year, Kehlani undertook a ritualistic spiritual cleanse, embraced sobriety, and focussed on elevating their life for their daughter. And whilst Kehlani’s music has always centred around their intense experience of love, on blue water road they cast their net further afield.
The hypnotic ‘shooter interlude’ recounts the demands of those in Kehlani’s life when they first found fame, describing it as “a peek into the exhaustion and my perspective, so you know what it’s like being in my position”; elsewhere, and ‘Altar’ explores the spiritual practice of continuing your relationships with loved ones even after they have passed through their rituals, something Kehlani experienced again after recently losing friends to addiction.
Sonically, blue water road eschews moody moments – and even more explosive R&B moments; the closest we get to a pop track is ‘up at night’, a chilled ode to infatuation via a turn by Justin Bieber. As an album, it is the mellower moments that shine most, such as the silky ‘get me started’ featuring Syd, or Kehlani’s self-proclaimed favourite, ‘Melt’. In maturation and introspection, Kehlani has found that you do not need to always be the boldest or loudest in order to shine.
“I think it all just ties back to myself,” Kehlani shares in the first episode of the three-part docu-series blue water road trip. “I can remember when I was just running and ripping all over the place and just never was grounded. My relationships felt like that, my connections felt like that, my friendships felt like that – everything felt like that.” Now, Kehlani has embraced a new perspective on life: now they have unlocked peace.
Kehlani – ‘everything’
Featuring at the tail end of the album, ‘everything’ is a perfect example of what Kehlani set out to achieve with blue water road: sincere emotion, honest communication, and unshakeable calm. Her tranquil epiphany details their revelations of what love really means, its new definition tugging at the heartstrings with silky smooth harmonies, intimate guitar work, and moving strings.
Mahalia – ‘In The Club’
Continuing her slow-drip of new singles, Mahalia returns with her latest outing ‘In The Club’. Following in the wake of recent outings ‘Letters To Ur Ex’ and ‘Whatever Simon Says’, the track samples the 50 Cent classic of the same name yet dials it down for a mellower experience whilst calling out those hanging on the coattails of her success. “I’d come home for Christmas and people would start acting like we’d been friends forever,” she says of the track. “They’d ask about London and my life as if we’d been close since kids. I always found that very bizarre.”
PinkPantheress – ‘Where you are’ (feat. WILLOW)
Throughout her stratospheric rise, PinkPantheress has proven herself to be ever the genre-blender. With the new single, ‘Where you are’, the musician samples ‘Never Let This Go’, an O.G Paramore classic plucked from their 2005 debut album All We Know is Falling – though you’d be forgiven for missing it; the guitar is neatly masked in the garage beats and peppy energy. Given the propensity for a dash of emo, the addition of WILLOW is apt, balancing PinkPantheress’ angelic delivery with her own deeper tone.
FKA twigs – ‘honda’ (feat. Pa Salieu)
Returning at the top of the year with CAPRISONGS was an unprecedented treat for all FKA twigs fans, and ‘honda’ was certainly a highlight. Teaming up with acclaimed rapper Pa Salieu, the track continues her reclamation of joy as she captures a ride-or-die connection over afrobeats and bassy notes, and leaves you wanting a slice of the same pie. Marrying the outing with another “caprivid” by Aidan Zamiri, the video captures a headrush speed with impossible angles and is, according to Twigs, “a perfect definition of a caprivid because it’s super short and cheeky and it leaves you wanting more.”
Megan Thee Stallion – ‘Plan B’
When Megan Thee Stallion said new track ‘Plan B’ was “very motherfucking personal” we didn’t doubt her, but the new single still managed to raise a few eyebrows when she initially previewed it during her performance at this year’s Coachella. With lyrics like “dick don’t run me, I run dick” and “I’m the only reason you got bitches”, fans began to speculate who the barbs were referring to (including the likes of Tory Lanez), though Megan went on to clarify on Twitter that “I was just venting Abt experiences I’ve had in relationships I’ve been in the past”. ‘Plan B’ is heavily rooted in Jadecki, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah’s 1995 track ‘Freak N You’, tapping into a nostalgic hip hop sound.