Kehlani on Insecurity, Coming of Age and Bringing a 'Vulnerable Honesty to R&B'

Arturo Torres

Kehlani photographed in 2015.

Twenty-year-old R&B standout Kehlani is quickly climbing the charts with her new mixtape You Should Be Here, which boasts a collaboration with Chance the Rapper and a collection of lyrics harboring the type of depth that almost contradicts her young age. Amid the chaos that comes with promoting a new album, Kehlani took time to talk with Billboard, hitting all topics ranging from her musical influences and her "father figure" Nick Cannon, to her take on the cruel standards of beauty hurled onto today’s youth.

Kehlani Releases the Year's First Great R&B Album With 'You Should Be Here'

This has been a pretty huge year with SXSW and the release of You Should Be Here. How does it feel?

It’s ridiculous. Especially because I’m 20, you know what I’m saying? I’m fulfilling dreams mad early. It just makes me really excited to see what can come next.

What kind of music did you grow up listening to?

Growing up, I listened to a lot of neo-soul and R&B. Now I’m trying to broaden my horizons so that I can create differently. I’m trying to expand and listen to the kind of stuff that the youth are listening to so I can incorporate it when I make music. I just started getting into Future and a lot of trap music and underground rap.

Describe the evolution from putting out Cloud 19 to creating You Should Be Here. What big changes have taken you from one project to the next?

It was more personal differences. You give an artist time and allow them to look at what they did and move on. What really made the difference was the person I grew into. I’ve built new relationships with family members and got to really know myself and entered a new relationship. I’ve found a lot of life that I didn’t necessarily have before. That really allowed me to expand creatively.

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At only 20 years old, was it difficult to be so vulnerable and put out such personal music?

It just felt like, "Are people going to take me seriously? Are they going to take me as seriously as they would if I were 25 or 26 coming out with these records?" But then I realized that everyone who's going through the things I’m going through are my age, so why wouldn’t they relate even more? You know how when you hear something from your parents and you don’t necessarily always pay attention to it, but then your best friend will tell it to you and you’ll be like, "You’re right!" I feel like that’s why a lot of teenagers and a lot of young people are relating to my music right now. They’re like wow, she’s not talking down to us...

Was that nerve-racking for you?

It motivated me, if anything. My age always motivates me -- all that does is let me know that I’m on the right path, and by the time I’m their age, I could be doing things that I’ve always dreamed about. It never scares me.

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The track “Bright” has such a powerful message about coming of age in a tough world and struggling with identity when you’re young. What was the process of creating a song like that?

It’s just sad because I see it every day. I go on Twitter and I literally see girls posting a picture of one of the Jenners and writing something like “OMG, my self esteem is gone” or “Bye, I’m gonna go kill myself now.” That’s no joke, you know what I’m saying? People really think like that. They look at hair books and they think that because their hair isn’t straight, they’re not pretty and they can’t be anything. It makes me so sad. I can look at it also from a personal standpoint of things that upset me and made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of certain things growing up. I didn’t look like what everyone else looked like and I had all these tattoos. There are just so many things I’ve noticed that are wrong and had to be spoken up for, and I felt like the only way to get it across was through songs.

Which songs on You Should Be Here felt the most personal for you?

Definitely “The Letter”, because that was directly about my mother. “Wanted,” that was about exiting a really toxic relationship but entering a really great one and just letting the old person know this person is doing everything that you never did, and I hope you feel bad and I hope you see that I’m completely fine now. Also “The Way” -- I wrote that about someone very special to me.

The theme of romantic relationships is really present throughout You Should Be Here...

Yeah, I think it’s because I naturally channel my emotions into my relationships. Growing up with so many family problems, you sometimes really don’t learn the necessary process of channeling emotions. When most people went and talked to their mom or their best friend, I talked to my boyfriend. I think that’s why it’s so relevant to me and why I make a lot of love songs. Everything is love. I just chose to be really vulnerable with it.

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What was it like collaborating with Chance the Rapper on this project?

It was really natural. One thing I’ve always admired about Chance is that he has this "working with your friend" quality. He doesn’t care how big the person is or if it’s gonna get him any fans or followers. He really tells people, "Work with your friends, work with people you vibe with, work with people whose music you really love." I didn’t send Chance the song for him to get in on it. I sent it to get the musical opinion of a friend whose musical opinion I really value. I sent it to him and was just like, "Check your email, tell me what you think about the song." He was like, "Save me a verse for the remix," and I was like, "You could totally get on the original." And he got on the original and it was really great.

You’ve spoken a bit about linking back up with Nick Cannon. What role did he play for you?

Before Nick Cannon, I was homeless. I was just in Oakland, I had one song out, and I had never really written too much before. He came from a standpoint of someone I had met a long time ago on America’s Got Talent. He saw my potential back then and he waited around to see what I grew into, and he saw a young girl who needed some help in the area where no one should really be struggling. Simple things like having a place to lay my head and having a safe place to write music. He really gave me that. He gave me a place to rest my head. As a young woman not having a father figure or any type of supportive male role in your life, that’s what he gave to me. He was kind of like a father figure.

Talk about the title. Where did You Should Be Here originate?

It’s actually very sacred. Initially when I thought of it, I was sitting on the beach. It was after the first time my boyfriend and I had a conversation about the whole "I like you and you like me, what’s gonna happen?" type of thing and I sent him a picture of my feet against the beach and the caption was “You should be here.” I just got to thinking, "Wow, there are so many people that should be here witnessing what I’m about to do." It was a couple of days before I went on tour, and it was one of those days where I called all of the girls to come to the beach. I needed sanity. I was just getting peace of mind, and I thought to myself there are so many people that should be here, whether it’s negatively or positively. In regards to my parents, in regards to exes, in regards to lost friends, and just in regards to myself and who I am at the moment. I just thought who I am now, I want to remain here and present. It just clicked when I sent that photo.

With this new project finally out, where do you see yourself fitting into R&B today?

I’m reminiscing, you know what I’m saying? I wouldn’t even call my R&B right now necessarily what the current state of R&B is. That's something that interests me though, and I want to learn how to make cool, current R&B that's radio-friendly. I bring a vulnerable honesty to R&B that I feel like a lot people don’t. I don’t know if they’re scared or they think it won’t make them money or they think it’s gonna stop them from reaching a broader audience, but there’s a whole bunch of us out there who need healing, and I feel like I bring that out.

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the May 16 issue of Billboard