Album Review: Kehlani Gets Honest on Superb ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’

Kehlani should be one of the biggest stars in the world. She consistently delivers strong and authentic R&B music with her own unique fusion of rap and acoustic pop. Last year, her While We Wait mixtape functioned as the follow-up to her Grammy-nominated debut album, SweetSexySavage, and as a gift to fans to celebrate her pregnancy and upcoming second album. With hits like the Ty Dolla $ign-featuring “Nights Like This” and the Dom Kennedy-assisted “Nunya,” the mixtape felt like an album in and of itself. Nonetheless, the tape was an expert set-up for the string of singles that would soon follow. With no apparent schedule or rhyme or reason, leading up to her sophomore album, Kehlani released a slew of excellent loosies. There was the confessional “You Know Wassup,” a rollicking Keyshia Cole collaboration by the name of “All Me,” and a deeply personal stream-of-consciousness track called “Valentine’s Day (Shameful).” Oh, and Kehlani collaborated with Zedd on “Good Thing,” guested on “Hit My Phone” from Megan Thee Stallion‘s Suga EP, and appeared on “Get Me,” a standout track from Justin Bieber‘s Changes album. She’s been busy and present, but nothing could have prepared the world for the visceral honesty and stunning cohesiveness of It Was Good Until It Wasn’t.

In 2020 so far, we’ve seen albums, like Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA, handle intensely personal themes that were also intrinsically political. On It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, Kehlani sharpens her focus to one specific narrative: her internal battle between emotional intimacy and sex-based relationships and her struggle to come to terms with her own faults and the faults of her partners. Kehlani has always been a strong songwriter, and on this record she conjures up a narrative that’s so addictive and vulnerable that it doesn’t need specific characters. She dresses her lyrics with a textured soundscape of soft sparkly trap beats, urgent bass lines, acoustic guitar, and sultry saxophone. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t explores a protagonist that’s destructive, reactive, and, above all, someone who desperately wants to love and to be loved. The album is a lyrical masterclass that never feels performative in the way it utilizes slang and metaphor. It’s truly a superb body of work that elevates Kehlani’s already stellar discography.

“Toxic,” the album’s lead single, doubles as the first track on the record. The track is just as slinky and sexy as when it first dropped, and its story of a love that she can’t stay away from even if she knows that it’s toxic and dangerous hits ever harder in the context of the album. Ty Dolla $ign’s ad-libs function as a sort of echo of his guest verse on While We Wait’s “Nights Like This,” a nod to her past work. The song then morphs into “Can I,” a raunchy Tory Lanez collab on which Kehlani uses a catchy rap/sung cadence. Melodically, the song becomes a bit redundant, but the slight rasp in Kehlani’s voice adds a color that complicates the song’s lyrics. Although she croons about how their “sextape crazy, need the bloopers,” there’s a slight rasp in her voice that longs for a deeper and more emotional connection. Just two tracks into the album, and the narrative of the deceptively fulfilling love that “Toxic” began has already developed tenfold. The raunchy songs don’t stop here. On “Water,” perhaps the nastiest of them all, Kehlani uses slight electronica influences to showcase how in control of her sexuality she is. She gets explicit on this track (“It’s the way you drink it all like you’re thirsty/Tie me up, pin me down, show no mercy/Nibble on it, kissing it like a Hershey”), but the cool confidence she delivers those lines with is unmatched. There’s also “F&MU,” the album’s current single, on which Kehlani explores how sex is the constant solution to communication issues and emotional disconnect with her partner. Although the bouncy production makes this a danceable track, the song becomes a bit more bleak once Kehlani dips into her smoky register in the chorus.

Atlantic

It Was Good Until It Wasn’t isn’t all about sex. The album also covers the emotional tension and complexities of Kehlani’s relationships. The album’s second single, “Everybody’s Business,” was initially forgettable out of context. Now, with the rest of the album’s narrative fleshed out (and preceded by a genius skit), the track’s brutal honesty about the depths of her love and the rumors surrounding her relationships is absolutely gorgeous. Her delicate vocal performance is a stark contrast to the powerful disposition she assumes on “F&MU” and “Water,” but that gentle vulnerability is hinted at earlier on the album on the aptly titled “Bad News.” “Everybody’s Business” also transitions most of the album into a tone of a production that is more analog-focused. The song houses doo-wop influenced chord progressions and its use of guitar reappears on “Serial Lover.” The album’s greatest production moment, however, is the implementation of the saxophone on “Hate the Club,” courtesy of Masego. Lyrically, the track isn’t necessarily outstanding, but that saxophone calls back to the blues and jazz lineage of R&B despite the distinctly modern story that Kehlani is sharing. In terms of collaborations, Kehlani packs on the starpower, but each artist properly complements their respective tracks. On “Change Your Life,” Jhené Aiko‘s light tone pairs well with Kehlani more gravelly tone, and the two women really sell the “Upgrade U”-esque lyrical sentiments. Lucky Daye, who also appeared on Kiana Ledé’s KIKI album earlier this year, delivers a gorgeous vocal performance on “Can You Blame Me,” a song on which he adapts to Kehlani’s trademark vocal delivery and explores how pride and desire can cause fiery conflicts and misleading emotional fulfillment. Above all, it’s James Blake who delivers the best guest appearance on the album. The emotional “Grieving” is the album’s climax — a somber reflection on the relief, regret, and peace that comes from the dissolution of a relationship and the beginning of the journey forward.

Kehlani’s sophomore album is a victory in every sense of the word. She has delved deeper into her artistry and expanded her musical palette in ways that accentuate her versatility and emphasize her uniqueness. Through the album’s skits (one of which features a surprise appearance from Megan Thee Stallion), Kehlani provides different voices for her story without overpowering her own or underselling the differing perspectives. She even dedicates the album’s last song to the late Lexii Alijai, a Minnesota-based rapper who Kehlani collaborated with on her Grammy-nominated You Should Be Here mixtape — yet another reference to her past works. Gone is the twinkling pop sheen of SweetSexySavage, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is grown, candid, and one of the strongest albums of the year so far.

Key Tracks: “Grieving”; “Water”; “Hate The Club”; “Can You Blame Me”; “Open”

Score: 82

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