It’s cliché but true; Kehlani’s voice sounds like a ray of sunshine. It is warm, radiant, and unyielding. She emerged sounding this way on her breakout, Grammy-nominated 2015 mixtape You Should Be Here (released four days after her 20th birthday), fully-formed not only as a vocalist but also as a songwriter. On You Should Be Here and her 2017 debut album SweetSexySavage, Kehlani parsed the emotional currents running through her turbulent childhood, her suicide attempt, and ongoing relationships to produce clear-eyed songs about love, sex, angst, and wellness; her luminous voice suffusing her every word with a profound sense of hope.
On her new mixtape While We Wait, Kehlani doesn’t tinker with her proven formula. Rather, she delivers a tightly written, fundamentally sound nine-track project that nevertheless feels expansive in its portrayal and navigation of modern relationships. The title refers both to her upcoming album and the imminent birth of her daughter, who is due in March; its nine songs are perhaps a nod to the nine months of pregnancy. WWW serves as testimony to the simple fact that relationships require work; they must be maintained and nurtured, and when they fail, the emotional labor often lasts well past the postmortem. With the wisdom of a woman twice her age, Kehlani inhabits and ruminates in the many folds of her various relationships—their ever-shifting boundaries and expectations and persistent need for communication.
On “Too Deep,” she sings of a physical relationship that loses its blissful, no-strings-attached simplicity as it develops an emotional component: “I don’t wanna think less of you, no / I just wanna see the best for you.” If love is a double-edged sword, WWW is filled with tender songs sensitive to its every nick and cut.
“Footsteps,” the first song on While We Wait, begins with balmy guitar and the sound of waves lapping on a beach. It’s a fitting opening for a mixtape defined by its soft edges. “When I walked away/ I left footsteps in the mud so you could follow me,” Kehlani sings, remembering a relationship that faded gradually, almost imperceptibly. Her pen is impressively sharp; throughout WWW, she uses images and feelings that might come across as shopworn R&B tropes in the hands of another singer and builds them into vivid, personal metaphors that animate her own love life. “All that glitters isn’t gold, I was blinded,” she sings on “Nights Like This,” “should have never gave you my heart on consignment.”
WWW is most thrilling when Kehlani is putting fuckboys in their place. On the Hit-Boy-produced “Nunya,” she takes a shot at a nosy ex who is “all up in [her] bees.” Cooing harmonies set the mood as she casually curves this would-be lover and floats en route to a head-turning chorus: “You put on a show/ ‘Cause you don’t want the world to know/ That you lost a girl who got it on her own.” Dom Kennedy shows up long enough to sleepwalk through a verse peppered with cringey bars like “My heart on my sleeve, check the tag.” In the wise words of Twitter user @big_business_, “Dom Kennedy is just a plumber that raps at this point.”
“Nunya” segues into “Morning Glory,” another mixtape highlight about a man who doesn’t like the way she looks her after she washes her makeup off at night. As strings drift over a souped-up breakbeat, Kehlani works in a fast food slogan (“This ain’t BK, you can’t have it your way”) and later drops a quietly devastating burn about the entry-level hygiene achieved by most men (“I know I’m fine, don’t need outer confirmation from a man/ Who uses 2-in-1 and thinks he’s a sensation”). These sorts of lines work because she deploys them in moderation and almost in passing, without any sort of expectant pause. They feel organic and lived-in compared to the sort of punchlines that rappers like Big Sean hang their hat on.
While We Wait isn’t quite the parade of (should-have-been) smashes that ran through SweetSexySavage. It does show her progression as a keen songwriter who shines a light not only into the vast, dark, ambiguous gulf that exists between any two people, but also on ways in which they might build a bridge across it. There is a moment on “Butterfly” that encapsulates the way Kehlani uses simple gestures, rather than sweeping statements, to express the ways in which she falls in and out of love: “I see you duck and dodge at every bend/ It’ll make you no less of a man/ To break your walls and simply grab my hand.” While We Wait is filled with these sorts of incisive lyrical runs, delivered in Kehlani’s divine vocals and packaged in fluid, ‘90s R&B-inflected production. The result is music that feels like a gentle breeze.