You Should Be Here is out at iTunes now, and you can stream the whole thing at Face 2 Face the Magazine.
As red herrings go, first single “The Way” off Kehlani’s first official album,You Should Be Here, is a doozy. The song is a sensual shuffle that channels SZA, Jhené Aiko, and Kelela, from spacey, hesitant vocals, to a slowed-and-pitched-down rap (from the typically nimble Chance the Rapper), to the lyrics—it’s a straightforward ode to lust, all about desire and longing and waiting for the moment where wanting and having your partner collide. It’s a fascinating song, and only in the most superficial ways does it suggest anything about You Should Be Here’s loftier goals.
The song’s lyrics might be the biggest red herring of all. Kehlani spends most of You Should Be Here switching between telling various dudes to get their shit together and the rest on a mission to inspire humanity. Kehlani has little in common with other former-child-stars-turned-singers Zendaya or Tinashe (Kehlani and her band made it to the finals on “America’s Got Talent”), and she has little in common with the music of cool, casually misogynistic R&B bros, and in spite of a connection to PARTYNEXTDOOR and hailing from Oakland, neither of those facts figure much into her music, at least on an obvious level. If there’s a contemporary comparison to be made, it’s Frank Ocean. Kehlani, along with right-hand-man producer Jahaan Sweet, shares Ocean’s auteuristic vision and plainspoken eloquence. And, much like Ocean, when Kehlani veers toward the maudlin, somehow the sincerity of it all redeems itself.
The beating heart at the center of You Should Be Here forgives some of these dips into mawkishness. You Should Be Here’s dynamism and generosity is something to be amazed by, especially considering Kehlani is all of 19 years old. On the stunning “Wanted”, she sings, “As a woman/ When you are broken/ You make a choice to stay down or go in,” but the chorus, one of resounding triumph, begins with the declaration, “He makes me feel wanted/ Like no one has before.” Kehlani weaves an emotional, stirring thread through her songs that mostly feels joyful, even when she’s lurking on Instagram (“Jealous”) or being vexed by a new flame (“Yet”).
When some of these songs soar in their choruses, like on “Wanted”, the title track, and the synthy, bubble-gummy kiss-off “How That Taste”, Kehlani’s full-throated vocals and live-band sound recall ’90s R&B groups like Total. But the album also strays to lots of other places: into jazzy, new jack swing-influenced R&B, straight-ahead devotion hymns (penultimate stomper “Bright”), capital-P pop ballads (closer “Alive”, which would not sound out of place in a current adult-contemporary rotation). It’s this unabashed ambition that makes You Should Be Hereresonate long after one has internalized its motivational urges (“Can’t nobody love somebody that do not love themselves”) and tender observations on the mechanics of relationships (see the wistful “Unconditional”). That Kehlani manages to breathe new life into these sounds and romantic musings is inspirational. She keeps telling people to follow her lead, too—just refer to the album’s title.