I meet Kehlani on the last day of her European tour. A scroll through her Insta-feed confirms that she’s been ripping it up across the continent; making the most of every city with her fanbase the Tsunami Mob, truck-loads of red wine and face packs for down-time. “I’d never been to Europe before,” she admits to Wonderland. “I’d barely been outside America.” She’d studied French at school though. “Seeing the EiffelTower in my text books and then standing under it was a trip to me. I wanted to call my French teacher and be like, ‘Bruh! I did it!’”
When Kehlani enters a room the energy changes: she comes like a Tasmanian devil – an unstoppable wave of positive energy. “My nickname was Lani Tsunami,” she says, hence the crewdem title. We chat whilst she’s having her hair and make- up done, trying her first ever Nando’s (verdict: “overrated!”) and Snapchatting errrrything. “Who can’t multi-task?!”, she cries, at the top of her voice.
The Grammy nominations have just been announced and Kehlani’s latest mixtape You Should Be Here is, up for Best Urban Contemporary Album. It sits pretty alongside the likes of Miguel and The Weeknd. “I’m still low-key waiting for somebody to tell me they’re kidding,” Kehlani jokes. But I can’t help but think that she’s not that surprised at all.
Kehlani, the post-post-R&B star, has been years in the making. She’s been singing and dancing since her early teens, having discovered her inner entertainer at school in South Berkeley. “I just remember that everything I was interested in, I tried. And I was good at.”
By the time she was 14 she was in unthinkably cute covers band, PopLyfe. In her current iteration she embodies hotness for 2016 — all plum lips, Timberlands and ripped abs; back then a rasta beanie and postbox red fringe hid thick-rimmed specs. She fronted an all-male rabble of talented young musicians. The troupe jammed their hearts out to everything from Estelle to Queen, and before they knew it they’d gigged their way to the baying crowd and theatrical villainy of America’s Got Talent. They narrowly missed a spot in the finals, but the ice-plunge trauma involved in being at the Simon Cowell end of the music business was enough to throw Kehlani off her game for a couple of formative teenage years.
Show host Nick Cannon never forgot her raw talent though, and invited her to try her luck again in LA. There, she found a sound with young unknown producer Jahaan (“the chemistry between us is ridiculous”) and the result was 2014’s independently released mixtape, Cloud 19. It introduced her to the scene as a confident and consummate R&B artist for the era – assured enough to allow her tracks to creep and breathe. “Rising Star” accolades piled in and the majors were officially interested. By early 2015 she was signed to Atlantic, her indie success ensuring that she called the shots.
Fans of Kehlani only need to listen to her tracks to know that her life has not been an easy one. On her first major label release – that Grammy-winning mixtape – she “took risks in being very vulnerable.” Track “The Letter” is a heart-breaking message to her mother – an addict released from prison just long enough to birth her. Recorded so as not to hide the cracks in her voice, its stripped back simplicity speaks to anybody who’s ever felt abandoned. “Maybe I didn’t deserve you/ Maybe I’m too much to manage”, she croons.
“I fell in love with artists growing up because I felt like they were being real,” she explains as I spot a Lauryn Hill tattoo daubed onto her arm. Kehlani’s output doesn’t scream “mainstream ambition”, but it does offer up something unique and unmistakably honest that could find her there anyway.The “alt-R&B” label feels outdated – the creation of music journalists who won’t admit to their love of pop.And Kehlani’s determined to stand out in her genre: “Now everybody’s all on some, ‘I’m going out to the club and turning up’ tip,” she moans. “I wanna know how you feel when you got home from the club.”
When Kehlani gets back to the US, she’s heading to Oakland for two sold-out homecoming shows. And she’ll be playing at a spot that she knows very well, too: “I used to go to school in this building; I saw Lauryn Hill in this building. It’s epic.” It’s sure to be a moment of triumph. In everything from her tracks to her Twitter feed, Kehlani’s on a mission to push a “lifestyle situation”: “I wanna teach girls about friendship and body-positivity.” The 20 year-old may be covered in tatts and smoke the odd spliff, but if mums of teenage girls look a little deeper, they might just find the perfect modern role model.