There’s a simple yet powerful promise in “Little Story,” the orchestral epic that opens Kehlani’s new album “Blue Water Road” — one that captures what it feels like to spend a lifetime chasing safe, tender intimacy in collaboration. : softer/because you are a dream, for me.”
The phrase evokes one of the foundations of Kehlani’s music: a dedication to openness and fearless vulnerability in the face of romantic turmoil. Kehlani, who uses she/she pronouns, has always been confessional, a quality that has resonated with a generation of pop and R&B fans and can be felt on the singer’s ear. last two albums (and mixtapes). This time, the insecurities of love and heartbreak are still there, but there is a renewed consciousness – an emotional clarity that illuminates how healing isn’t always linear.
All this wisdom didn’t just appear out of thin air. Over the past two years, Kehlani has experienced several life-changing shifts: getting used to motherhood; lose two close friends to a drug overdose; endured a brutal public breakup with the rapper YG; and coming out as a lesbian and as a non-binary. Many of these themes appeared on the 2020 album “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t”, and some have been re-recorded here, but that project was murky and macabre, driven by thin, hollow beats and a bleak take on the prospect of build healthy love.
Instead, “Blue Water Road” radiates delicate warmth. With a creamy, full voice, Kehlani exudes a tenderness not felt since their 2017 studio album, “SweetSexySavage”. There’s still reverence for the past: “Up at Night,” featuring Justin Bieber, interpolates the 1989 Soul II Soul and Rose Windross song “Fairplay,” while “Wish I Never” features the drums of Slick Rick’s classic “Children’s Story.” ” distorted. But there’s a fresh, imaginative air to the production on “Blue Water Road,” rendered in part by executive producer Andrew “Pop” Wansel. Nearly every track features hushed acoustic guitar textures or swelling string crescendos that revel in high drama. Echoes of wind, high waves and bird sounds are scattered everywhere, sketching an aural landscape that is soft and comforting, like the caress of a lover who has been gone too long.
This is the ideal backdrop for Kehlani’s diary-writing, bleeding lyric. “Little Story” uses a romantic metaphor to describe a romance that never fully blossomed: “I want you to pick up the pen/And write me into your story,” Kehlani sings. The lead single “Altar” is a beautiful elegy for friends lost to addiction, and the ancestors who gave Kehlani spiritual grounding. But instead of being plunged into grief, Kehlani greets the dearly departed with a small act of service, reminding us that their memories will never truly fade: “If I light a flame and I call your name / I’ll give you a make a plate, we can go eat/We can share a meal your way/And I’ll play the songs you used to play.’
But it’s Kehlani’s candid musings on queer desire and alienation that resonate most deeply here. On the breathtaking slow-burner “Get Me Started,” Kehlani and R&B artist Syd lament a disconnection that threatens to end a relationship: “You need something else / Well, maybe she could do better.” On the velvety serenade “Melt,” Kehlani nurtures the small, perfect joy of finding a home in a lover: “I wish I could build me a cute apartment/one bedroom where your heart is.” Sensual yet loving, it captures both the committed affection and the erotic pleasure that makes a partnership feel full.
Serenity, personal growth and happiness may not be tempting subjects for a contemporary R&B record. But other artists might let these motifs land with wacky sentimentality. For Kehlani, the path to healing is not a straight forward journey with a beginning, middle and end, where life can finally begin after reaching an abstract, enlightened state. “Blue Water Road” reminds us that healing is open, unfinished, and eternal.