Music review: R&B breakout star Kehlani's smooth, pristine vocals reminiscent of Aaliyah

R&B singer Kehlani (above) is building up a buzz through social media. -- PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES, DOMINO
R&B singer Kehlani (above) is building up a buzz through social media. -- PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES, DOMINO

With her heart-on-sleeve delivery, Kehlani is an R&B singer to watch

R&B, which has always had its roots in urban streets, has a potential new breakout star who is as street-savvy as they come.

Kehlani, who goes by one name, has tattoos that speak of her influence (a portrait of Lauryn Hill from the cover of her seminal 1998 album, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, adorns her left arm) and eschews bling for skatewear, rocking Vans sneakers and Supreme caps.

She lays it straight on Unconditional: "Sometimes I come home and I'm sweaty from the day/And my hair's all in a messy bun 'cause I had to get it out my face/And I rather lace my sneakers up cause high heels ain't my thing/And I don't see a flaw in that, never one to change."

Neither does she flinch from tackling hard issues about age, relationship and identity as she sings in a smooth and pristine voice with shades of a past rising R&B starlet, the late Aaliyah.

Deftly, the 20-year-old American singer mines the hardship she had experienced growing up in an Oakland neighbourhood.

Her emotional delivery comes to the fore on The Letter.

You can almost hear her break down while recounting how she grew up without parents: "And if you weren't gonna guide me, why bring me into the light?" she questions before letting self-doubt take over with the line, "Maybe I didn't deserve you".

On the title track, she bemoans a lover slowly drifting apart ("Your body is here but your mind is somewhere else/So far gone and you think I can't tell").

The moping does not last, thankfully.

Before she closes the album on the optimistic Alive that celebrates how the end of a relationship can be a cause for jubilation, she dishes out advice to her peers on the gospel ballad Bright - the most old-school sounding track on the album - and applauds the times when things go right in love in Down For You and On The Way, on which she sensually trades verses with Chance The Rapper.

Technically speaking, You Should Be Here is a mixtape, which is how the hip-hop community describes a self-released collection of songs.

Like many of her generation, Kehlani is successfully building up a buzz through social media and the mainstream is starting to take notice.

Buoyed by the spirit of independent enterprise and judging by the strength and breadth of this mixtape, Kehlani firmly entrenches herself as an urban pop name to look out for.

dinohadi@sph.com.sg


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Albums of the week

R&B/POP

YOU SHOULD BE HERE

Kehlani

Self-released

3.5/5


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INDIE FOLK

DARLING ARITHMETIC

Villagers

Domino

4/5