In her emotionally searing sophomore record, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, Kehlani is done turning a blind eye.
In the artwork for her highly-anticipated sophomore album, Kehlani balances precariously on wicker furniture, her back to us, peering over a brick wall. Mid-gardening presumably, judging from the running hose in her hand. Something’s disturbed her so greatly she has to look. And then, we get the other vantage. Face-on, over the wall, her expression one of paralysed shock and fear. And we finally see the scene behind her: devastation and ruin. A burning inferno. Damaging situations and sly behaviour she used to turn a blind eye, or her back to. But her eyes are open now. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t.
Moody synths blare the record into life like a 4am wakeup alarm with telling opening track “Toxic”. She’s setting the scene. She’s telling us the stuff she doesn’t fuck with anymore; a calling out of a fraught relationship. She takes accountability for her part. But she’s done dismissing the gaslighting, the manipulation. Wearily she denounces “somehow I’m always caught in your dramatics / all in your acrobatics.”
In her new record, the intrepid Oakland singer is more lucid than ever. Her journey has been perilous, her losses public, and her songwriting navigates this emotional minefield. At times it’s mournful, but ultimately contemplative, playfully self-aware, without losing that early rawness she brought to the table.
And in some ways the album feels like a cathartic cleansing. “Bad News” opens with hair-raising choir-esque vocals, before a thumping bassline slows it down to Kehlani tempo. We’re on her time now. Her balladic vocal prowess kick in as she pleas with a lover to quit the dangerous street hustle, hoping she’s enough to “make you wanna give all that shit up”. We hear a gun cock and she softly laments “don’t wanna get no call with no bad news.”
The album is cut up with “skits”, audio samples, sometimes to embolden (collaborator Megan Thee Stallion brags about her prowess in “Real Hot Girl Skit”), and other times to educate; “Belong To The Streets” is an anon conversation audio berating Kehlani for her past romantic entanglements, how “fast” she moves on, and her public navigation of these losses. Their inclusion signposts that once she was fettered by these judgements, but now she is the one in the driving seat. Watch her take the criticisms and boil them alive.
And this life lived in the unforgiving glare of the public eye is a running theme in the album, addressed again in “Serial Lover”, which works as a contemplative steam of consciousness: “I think I’m addicted to romance / show my whole hand / lay my cards out flat”. She parries with it, and then sonically references her queer sexual identity, “I got bodies I’ma take to the grave / got girls I want to give my last name”, but then reminds us that the information we’re privy to now is given to us on her own terms: “no regrets / don’t got no shame / playing no games / playing my way.”
And the album is packed with high-production standout hits. Like its name, “Water” submerges us in trickling piano notes, vocal backing swoons and sumptuous hooky melodies. Masego-featured “Hate The Club” is a wondrous neo-soul jam, with a reverberating saxophone accompaniment. And Jhené Aiko glitters in blissful R&B listener “Change Your Life” – an angelic union of undulating vocals. On the record, also watch out for heavyweight Tory Lanez and disrupter Lucky Daye too.
If the album works like the seven stages of grief, with “Toxic” being acceptance, as it nears to a close, we experience “Grieving”, an incredibly melancholic meditation on what went wrong, bolstered with James Blake’s ethereal falsetto. We hear running water and the heat of the humid outdoors; it sounds like she’s taken herself far away. She sounds weary: “No one would bet that you would lose me like that / no one would guess I had the strength to fall back / now all I want is peace and quiet.” She reprimands the ex (who is never named) who “drink too much can’t pour it out” and who wanted her to “mother all your sons”. She bites “name a bitch patient like that”. All the while, the sombre refrain “grieving us”, like a ghost, echoes and distorts and warps throughout. It’s never just love and hate; when something ends, it’s much more complex than that.
And while much of the album sounds like mourning, it doubles as a celebration. Of what the Grammy Award-nominated singer has been through, of her own strength, motherhood, and the people and experiences that have ultimately enriched her life. An outro from Minnesota rapper Lexii Alijai – who was a close collaborator of Kehlani and who died of an overdose early this year – plays the record out, and it’s evocative of the searing mood: “can’t nobody hold me back no more / I been on the right track so far.”
In case you were wondering, she is fortified. This is a new chapter of Kehlani.