While SweetSexySavage is singer/songwriter Kehlani’s debut album, it’s far from our first dance with the Oakland “singwriter.” The emerging star first came on our radar on the reality show America’s Got Talent as part of the group Pop Lyfe. After that situation ended, she re-emerged a very different person as a solo artist on her first mixtape, Cloud 19. That project received critical acclaim and inspired the singer’s own group of stans, the Kehlani Tsunami. We were then treated to her major label mixtape debut, You Should Be Here. Now we’re finally getting our “official” introduction to Kehlani -- the woman and the singer. But with so much material out there, will the album be the same story we’ve been hearing for years?
In a word: nope. While the album has a decidedly radio-friendly pop sound, inspired by the music of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Kehlani still comes through with her signature edge, bringing new parts of her heart and soul to bear. The album opens with a poem by Reyna Biddy, the opening lines expressing, “My condolences to anyone who has ever lost me / And to anyone who ever got lost in me / Or, to anyone who ever felt they took a loss in me / My apologies for the misunderstanding or loss thereof.” This sets the stage for an album about a young woman who has found her stride but not perfection.
The first song, “Keep On,” is a thumping bass heavy, hand clapping ode to makeups to break ups. However, Kehlani knows she’s the bad guy, almost mockingly singing to her lover, “Any crazy things you’re feeling for me tonight / You can get it on out the way.” This is a side to the artist we haven’t seen before, the one admitting her own faults. She’s growing, but not quite grown enough to leave the situation alone. On “Not Used To It,” she references her environment as an excuse for her behavior, even if it’s a bit cliche. Finally, on “Do U Dirty,” Ms. Parrish is done playing coy, letting a lover know straight up that the good in her ain’t no match for the hood in her.
Beyond just being a repentant/unrepentant savage, Kehlani is also looking for healing on tracks such as the first single “CRZY,” “Advice” and “Piece of Mind.” On the latter, the singer references her attempted suicide, while discussing lessons learned from a bad heartbreak. However, while the artist has grown, there are still things she can’t just shake and wishes she could just break off in an Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind lobotomy fantasy. The refrain of the track, where she sings “I am,” references not only the hook from the track "As I Am" from her debut mixtape, a song about being madly in love with someone, but also Brandy’s “Who I Am,” a track where she also thanks a past lover for life lessons. While the latter could be coincidence, it is interesting to see Kehlani making a connection to one of the artists she wishes to emulate with her sound.
While things can get a bit serious on the album, Kehlani also knows how to keep the party going. “Undercover,” produced by musical maestro of the moment Charlie Heat, provides an uptempo Latin-inspired groove for Kehlani to get her creep on. “In My Feelings,” which builds upon New Edition’s “If This Isn’t Love,” has Kehlani once again questioning her love life, the tempo increasing to match her anxiety.
While the overall project is well executed, there are some tracks that are less successful than others. “Escape” and “Get Like,” while cute pop songs that definitely hit on the “Sweet” aspect of the album, border on being a bit too saccharine. “Too Much,” which samples Aaliyah’s “More Than A Woman,” doesn’t quite hit the right notes of nostalgia, coming off as reductive. Another thing we’re missing from the album is the “Sexy” side of our sweet savage. While it is implied in some places and overtly stated in others (i.e., "It's the way I ride you, let you stay inside and / Yeah, I'ma fuck you like a vixen,” from “Do U Dirty"), if we really wanted to have sexy time with a "Distraction" or undercover lover, SweetSexySavage wouldn’t make the GTD playlist.
So, at the end of the 19-track set, do we know Ms. Parrish any better? Would she be our BFF? Or that bish we wouldn’t mess with? Is she our friend, cousin, sister, mother, baby mama, side piece or boo thang? Well, she’s defined herself as all these things and more. Kehlani is growing and changing but still uniquely herself. She’s given us a taste of who she is; not just a victim, not just a predator, but a fully realized woman with faults, issues and irresistable round-the-way girl swag that keeps us coming back for more.