Though it begins to blur together around halfway through its 18 tracks, Kehlani's debut is a strong throwback to an earlier time of R&B without being too reliant on nostalgia.
Don’t let Kehlani’s career catalyst – beginning as a teenager on America’s Got Talent as a part of PopLyfe – fool you into thinking she’s another typically average wannabe R&B talent. SweetSexySavage is an impressively strong debut with blunt lyrics, echoing vibes of Destiny’s Child and early Rihanna vibes in its refreshingly self-aware take on love and and relationships. Her beats are hypnotic, powerful, and sensual as she sings about an affair on ‘Undercover,’ interpolating Akon’s ‘Don’t Matter’ as she sings, “One way or another, Imma love you”; on ‘Advice’ as she reflects on her love life: “How is the man of my dreams not a man of his words? / Just a man that makes me hurt.”
Though she may not have the most powerful voice, Kehlani is still able to produce some impressive runs. However, it is what she says that makes SweetSexySavage such a delight, like the queer-hinting ‘Distraction’ and ‘Intro,’ a slam poem on femininity from 22-year-old Reyna Biddy – “I’m afraid you’re under the impression / That I was made to please you / I was under the impression you understood me better” is her callout to partners.
Lead single ‘CRZY’ is sharp, with her confidence palpable; other moments like ‘Personal’ and the slower ‘Everything Is Yours’ and ‘Hold Me By The Heart’ really allow her to make the most of her vocals. It’s not just the sound that enhances that, though: the production squad of Pop & Oak, Novawav, and Jahaan Sweet has done such a fantastic job in making the sound fit her emotions, allowing her to just dump pain, baggage, and, of course, words of sweet, sexy, and savage natures.
SweetSexySavage is a lovely, cohesive record that, during the first half at least, has enough distinction between songs to prevent the feeling that everything blurs into one. At 18 songs any album would start to mesh irritatingly together – and it certainly is no exception – but the lyrics remain throughout an incredible display of female empowerment, especially during ‘Too Much.’ Kehlani, well-seasoned in mixtapes and collaborations even before this debut album proper, completely owns her style whilst taking inspiration from others – unapologetically feminist in her reclaimation of emotions that all too often aren’t desirable to express or viewed as sufficiently “ladylike” to possess, there is no coincidence in the album title’s nod to CrazySexyCool as it brings something new to R&B rather than relying too heavily upon samples and nostalgia.
SweetSexySavage is out now via TSNI/Atlantic