Cliché’s aside, everyone loves a comeback kid. In March of 2016, Kehlani, the R&B wunderkind behind a series of commercially and critically successful EPs posted an Instagram of an IV. In the caption, she alluded to attempting to take her own life and addressed swirling rumors about her relationships and alleged infidelities. Because of this, there’s something especially gratifying about watching her produce an album as wonderfully executed as SweetSexySavage, her debut full-length. It’s tempting to take pop music (particularly the brand of Spotify-friendly pop R&B in which Kehlani traffics) entirely at face value, to presume cheapness and shallowness. But viewing SweetSexySavage in the light of her public emotional struggles casts throws the album’s emotional sophistication into new relief. SweetSexySavage is a bold statement of purpose–where Kehlani’s been and where she may be headed.
There’s little question that Kehlani understands her position along the continuum of pop R&B. SweetSexySavage pays homage so often that at times it borders on pastiche. Five of the nineteen songs on the album repurpose material from hit songs of the past. Both “Personal” and ‘Too Much” are structured around material from Aaliyah song (“Come Over” and “More Than a Woman” respectively.) “In My Feelings” reimagines New Edition’s syrupy and tender “If It Isn’t Love” as a bittersweet club banger. “Undercover,” lifts pieces of the chorus of Akon’s “Don’t Matter, and “I Wanna Be” references Sasha’s heaving “Dat Sexy Body.” Hell, even the title of the album is a nod to peak TLC.
Even when Kehlani forgoes direct interpolation, it’s difficult not to hear the spectral traces of her fore-bearers lurking in the background. “Keep On” utilizes the classic Aaliyah/Timbaland formula of thumping, sticky beat + sinuous vocals to great effect. “Too Much” is Southern Hummingbird-era Tweet if she took a few lessons DGAF lessons from Ciara.
Yet rather than limit her, Kehlani’s sense of history, her transparent adoration of the Janets, the Aaliyahs, the Brandys, even the Timbalands of yore foregrounds her R&B traditionalism. Kehlani isn’t an innovator, nor does she want to be. Instead, swathing herself in the pashmina of idiom, she sets out to explore further afield lyrically and emotionally. SweetSexySavage is a straight-forward R&B record, but its subtlety and depth of feeling is anything but.
Certainly, SweetSexySavage is chock full routine R&B wit. Lines like “Said I’m tryna break off a piece of mind” and “too much, three much/ four much, five much, too much for you” would make Aaliyah proud. But what sets Kehlani apart is her ability to imbue what could be shallow club tracks with shades of nuance and ambiguity. The first song on the album, (setting aside the spoken-word “Intro”) is a self-castigating list of admissions disguised as a sweltering, slow-grind bop. “Not Used to It” subverts the rags-to-riches hip-hop trope, recasting it as a confessional in which Kehlani explains how her past prevents her from immediately confessing her love. She even admits, with a wry lyrical grin, how typical her story sounds. Even “Thank You,” a slightly insipid if earnest ballad near the tail of the album, manages to charm.
Of course, SweetSexySavage has its low points, many of which could have been avoided if the track list weren’t a whopping nineteen songs (note to artists: SAVE SOME FOR LATER). Despite their sweetness (I’m particularly fond of the flamenco-tinged guitar in “Hold Me by the Heart”) a few of the ballads come off as pointless schlock. Additionally, the inclusion of “Gangsta,” a bonus track originally written for the Suicide Squad soundtrack is completely needless. Not only is it a patently boring song, but frankly, nobody needs to be reminded of that train wreck of a movie any longer.