When Kehlani was fronting the Oakland band Poplyfe during the sixth season of America's Got Talent, judge Piers Morgan informed the young singer, "I don't think you need the group." Four years later, Kehlani had two independent solo releases to her credit: the eight-track Cloud19 (2014) and this album-length affair. A week after the latter was made available, major-label Atlantic announced its signing of Kehlani, one of the more promising artists of the mid-2010s. While the singer and songwriter has fashioned herself into a contemporary R&B artist comparable to the likes of Jhené Aiko and Tinashe, she has retained the charming, down-to-earth qualities she displayed with her band.
Female R & B’s decade-long search for the artist who will succeed in embodying the spirit, style and overall excellence of Lauryn Hill now turns to Oakland, California, the home of lovelorn and honest 20-year old vocalist Kehlani. Her greatest talent is showing an inkling of understanding the power apparent in the legendary Ms. Hill’s lyricism being borne of life lessons.
The empowerment anthem is a cornerstone of pop music: take a fuzzy platitude—“Baby, you’re a firework,” “Baby, I was born this way,” “Baby, this is your day”—and transpose it as a sky-high pop hook. Less common and more overwrought, but with similar intention is the It Could Happen to You narrative track, the clearest example being TLC’s cautionary “Waterfalls.” You know the template: Verse A features one perspective, verse B features another, and somehow the moralizing comes together in the bridge. “Waterfalls” was great because it was timely and directly illuminated stories about drug abuse and HIV/AIDS without being preachy.
As red herrings go, first single "The Way" off Kehlani’s first official album, You Should Be Here, is a doozy. The song is a sensual shuffle that channels SZA, Jhené Aiko, and Kelela, from spacey, hesitant vocals, to a slowed-and-pitched-down rap (from the typically nimble Chance the Rapper), to the lyrics—it’s a straightforward ode to lust, all about desire and longing and waiting for the moment where wanting and having your partner collide. It’s a fascinating song, and only in the most superficial ways does it suggest anything about You Should Be Here’s loftier goals.
Juggaknots were the great almost-weres of the mid-1990s New York independent hip-hop renaissance. The group’s stellar 1996 debut album “Clear Blue Skies” (Fondle ’Em) was one of that era’s essential documents, a dazzling show of lyricism and scrappy boom-bap purism. But despite a fitful mid-2000s comeback run, that’s remained the group’s defining statement.