Two summers ago when Kiana Ledé dropped her Selfless EP, she captured the attention of many new fans. I named Selfless as one of the 40 Best Albums of 2018 and I highlighted “Take It All” as one of the 10 Best Songs To Start Off Your Week. Selfless had a beautiful blend of acoustic R&B with these effortlessly catchy melodies that resulted in a truly fulfilling listen. “Ex,” a song to which Jojo’s new single, “Man,” bears striking similarities to, was the big hit on the album. Nevertheless, Kiana had bigger things in store. In 2019, she released another EP titled Myself, a standout standalone single called “Easy Breezy,” and she appeared on the Ariana Grande-produced Charlie’s Angels soundtrack.
For her official debut album KIKI, Kiana decided to sacrifice the rawness that characterized her EPs in favor of a more commercialized vision that feels cluttered but ultimately gets the job done. An aim for glossier production was clear from the moment Kiana dropped KIKI‘s lead single, “Mad At Me.” Built around a sample of OutKast’s “So Fresh, So Clean,” Kiana rap-sings about her new attitude and self confidence in the face of a man that was playing around with her emotions. The distinct hip-hop flavor on “Mad At Me.” is present throughout the album. On “Labels,” Kiana teams up with Moneybagg Yo and BIA, both of whom deliver great verses, on a hip-hop/R&B track that is destined to be a smash summer single. There’s this loop of a synthesizer riff in the background that makes the track incredibly catchy, and despite having three artists, the song doesn’t feel crowded at all. In terms of the hip-hop-influenced production, “Honest” is another standout, but, unfortunately, the beat swallows and outshines Kiana. While the overall production of KIKI is very well done, it is also very redundant. The beauty of Kiana’s EPs was the raw energy that the acoustic sound brought. There aren’t many of those moments on KIKI, and it sounds like Kiana is trying to fit into the current mold of female R&B instead of forcing the subgenre to make room for her. Many of these songs could have appeared on a release from Summer Walker or SZA or Ari Lennox. The issue isn’t the literal songwriting, which is very strong, it’s more so the layered percussion and 808s, 90s/00s samples, and off-kilter flow that sometimes prevent Kiana from standing out. Luckily, her distinct and consistently strong vocal performances help carry and add some color to the songs.
KIKI features a number of collaborations that are effective to varying degrees. As aforementioned, “Labels” is a standout, as is the Lucky Daye collaboration titled “Forfeit.” “Forfeit” is a beautiful ballad and the vocal chemistry between the two artist is sublime. On the other hand, Ari Lennox and Kiana join forces on “Chocolate,” a track that stumbles because the working parts never quite fit together. The production (awesome drum pattern!) feels like its fighting with the women’s voices, and, in turn, Ari and Kiana don’t have the strongest chemistry. They are both excellent vocalists so the track is underwhelming, but it may just be the wrong song for this specific duo. Lyrically, the song relies on a tired and clunky food-as-body metaphor that falls flat. Kiana and Col3trane team up on “Good Girl”; a smart matchup in which Kiana is successfully coaxed out of her comfort zone by way of of Col3trane’s trademark vocal distortion effects. The guest artists give mostly worthwhile appearances, but the solo tracks really carry the album. On “Crazy,” Kiana uses playful melodies to pull off a tricky vocal performance where she’s boasting about how crazy she can be while still sounding vulnerable and broken. The album’s intro, “Cancelled,” which features a hilarious “you know the vibes” social media meme at the beginning, is also a strong track that expertly sets the tone and mood for the album. Finally, “Skiterlude” leans into doo-wop for a nice break from the atmospheric vibe of the record, and “Attention” is an absolutely gorgeous ballad and album closer.
KIKI, as a whole, is a really solid album and a mostly satisfying listen. It’s a cohesive unit that is tied together by Kiana’s beautiful voice. If only Kiana gave that voice more time to shine against analog instrumentation as opposed to the busy and crowded production she choose to implement. Nonetheless, KIKI is a strong debut album that, if handled correctly, should prove to have longevity.
Key Tracks: “Cancelled”; “Attention”; “Forfeit”; “Labels”; “Crazy”