Rap was full of seemingly out-of-nowhere success stories last year, but the same was not true for R&B. As more types of music pilfer the genre’s signature delivery — and its singers — for their own ends, it’s tougher for R&B artists to stand out. Aspiring singers are beset by chic, Aaliyah-indebted pop like Banks and Broods, rappers crooning hooks, vocalists laying out powerful melismatic runs on EDM tracks. Even indie rock, which traditionally wanted nothing to do with R&B, now regularly borrows from the likes of Sade.
But the ambitious, self-assured new album from the Oakland singer Kehlani, You Should Be Here — a follow-up to the well-received Cloud 19 mixtape from 2014 — suggests that R&B singers still have plenty to contribute. This is a concept album. It’s an intense, focused exploration of all, or nearly all, the relationships the singer is involved in, both romantic and familial.
Kehlani doesn’t waste much time: after a short intro, she delivers the album’s first cooed line, “I’m looking right at you, but you’re not here,” immediately suggesting the unknowability of intimacy. She’s addressing a lover, but that line could apply to anyone with whom she is closely connected: siblings, parents or friends — they’re drifting apart, and she doesn’t get why.
Many of the songs on You Should Be Here channel the same heady mixture of longing and uncertainty. In “The Letter,” Kehlani refuses to name a subject until the last possible moment. “Your words were supposed to get me through my heart ache,” Kehlani sings. “Maybe I didn’t deserve you. Maybe I just couldn’t cure you.” This could be about any betrayal or disappointment — until she suddenly drills down into details more than 2/3 of the way through the song: “every girl needs a mother.” “Wanted” describes a newly-made connection, possibly fresh love, but the vocabulary of spiritual uplift in the song comes straight from gospel, as if she’s found religion. There’s courage here in holding back, a defiant choice to keep things ambiguous.
“Wanted” mixes chirping samples with a harpsichord-like sound: although Kehlani is based in Oakland, she doesn’t rely on the production style that defines, unites, and sometimes constrains many of the young artists coming out of the Bay Area. She picks instrumentals that weave twitchy splotches of manipulated vocals around the beat — part Kanye soul-rap, part the Weeknd — especially on the martial title track. Young R&B singers often pick a mode they like and stick to it (for better or worse), but here the music never gets get stale: “How That Taste” jolts forward with imperial swagger. A couple tracks later, “N—-s” borrows from the ’90s for a sweet, wordless opening, and then double backs with a statement of power.
Statements of strength can risk veering into holier-than-thou territory. Kehlani’s “Bright” preaches “don’t be misled,” but it’s lacking the explosive fervor and inventive instrumentation of the best modern gospel. Other guidance songs — by someone like Tye Tribbett, for example — risk more, and make a bigger point.
But “Bright” is sandwiched by two of the album’s most daring songs. “Alive” is relentlessly upbeat, like ’00s Natasha Bedingfield — a bold move at a time when R&B is dominated by doom and gloom, slow tempos and dark, soporific voices. And on “Yet,” Kehlani repeats the title phrase: “You ain’t my enemy yet, but you ain’t a friend to me yet.” She’s using ambiguity to her advantage now, suggesting that You Should Be Here is more than just a one-time catharsis — it’s a way forward for a fresh voice.