A true Kehlani aficionado knows the R&B star has oft sung about tequila and toxicity, blending the two ingredients in lyrics like “What if tequila grab my neck and said, ‘Don’t b–ch up’” in “Open (Passionate),” from her last album It Was Good Until It Wasn’t. Or “Don Julio made me a fool for you” in “Toxic” from the same project. But her life has recently taken a new direction – and one for the better.
Her new partnership with Grey Goose Essences made the Grammy-nominated artist switch from tequila to vodka, especially when it comes to her signature “Kehmami” cocktail, which contains Grey Goose Essences Watermelon & Basil vodka, fresh lime juice, St. Germain Elderflower liqueur and a couple of chili slices with a chili rim. But she’s also found peace of mind and stillness in her life, especially from being by the water – something that’s reflected in her third studio album Blue Water Road from this spring.
“At first I was like, ‘Damn, I’ve publicly talked s–t about vodka,’” she tells Billboard with a laugh about their partnership, before surprising fans at Belle’s Beach House in Venice, Calif. for a pop-up happy hour in June. “But I’m on a really big health kick right now, and as I’m getting older, I’m really recognizing that what I put into my body is important. To be quite frank, this is probably the healthiest alcoholic beverage that I could partner with. Vodka itself is pretty healthy, but the Essences has the natural elements, versus the big sugar factor. I actually enjoy it in a way that I haven’t enjoyed vodka since high school. But it really was cool to find something that I can feel grown and sexy and have a drink.”
And the SweetSexySavage singer, 27, certainly looks the part. As we kiki with her crew over her specialty cocktail, they chat about their recent vacation to the Dominican Republic with girlfriend 070 Shake, that one night Kehlani wanted everyone to impulsively get a belly button piercing, and their newfound love of surfing. The retro tiki bar and restaurant where the surprise pop-up takes place is just a couple of steps away from Venice Beach, where Kehlani & co. regularly surf at in the wee hours of the morning to get their day started.
The blue water is something they’ll miss once they hit the road. At the end of this month, Kehlani will embark on their first headlining tour in five years, traveling throughout North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. “I’m playing gigantic venues compared to the last time I toured,” they explain. “People are still buying these tickets like crazy. I’m just excited to finally have the stage to give the show that I want to give. It’s really amped up compared to the SweetSexySavage Tour, which was super minimal and super focused on me and the dancers. We’re going all out this year.”
But on Sunday, July 10, Kehlani will perform songs from Blue Water Road live for the first time during Grey Goose Essences’ second “In Bloom” concert experience. The “In Bloom, Imagined by Kehlani” show will take place at NYC’s Pier 17 and be livestreamed around the world via YouTube.
“I think it’s gonna be really special, because before I go on this massive tour where I don’t get to have this really intimate connection to the audience, I get to do this really intimate [show],” they explain. “I know there’s gonna be a lot of people, but it’s still not this huge, wild thing. It’s just going to be me singing and talking about the music and appreciating everybody for appreciating me. I’m really glad I get to have this moment before I get on the road.”
Of all the 13 songs on the album, Kehlani feels most excited to perform the swoon-worthy ballad “melt.” On the track, she croons “Where do you end? Where do I begin?” over swelling strings and a thumping bass, while the PDA-heavy accompanying visual follows their tender, blissful relationship with 070. “That was a really special moment, and I feel like me and my fans connected really hard through that because they just got to be really happy for me,” she reflects.
Blue Water Road finds Kehlani at her happiest, savoring a new love that’s more fulfilling than past fleeting flings, and capturing it through ultra-romantic, orchestral pop sounds she hadn’t fully dived into yet. She only shows slivers of regret on the tongue-and-cheek track “Wish I Never,” which samples Slick Rick’s 1989 Hot Rap Songs No. 2 hit “Children’s Story” (“It’s a classic song, and it’s one of those things where you can take a hip-hop song and make an R&B song… and you find a new relation to it, a new love for it,” adds Kehlani.) The bouncy, mellifluous production underlines Kehlani’s reflections about loved ones lost and love that’s been lost as she gently treads lightly into a new chapter of her life.
But sometimes fans don’t always have the best interest in mind for their favorite artists. The selfish desire for those artists to stay in their toxic life situations in order to make relatable music for fans going through it takes over the genuine, human desire for them to also come out on the other side. “They want us to be heartbroken,” they say. “I hate that for us.”
Kehlani has even questioned how they even felt about making happier music. On the first episode of their YouTube mini-series, blue water road trip, they reflect on how far they’ve come mentally and emotionally. “I used to clown how happy and bright I felt in my first album. The contrast in my second album was so dark that I felt like that was cooler and more mature,” Kehlani tells the camera. “Now that I’m back in a really bright space, but I’m older, it doesn’t feel corny to me.”
The settings for her SweetSexySavage and It Was Good Until It Wasn’t albums don’t reflect the bright space she’s currently in. “I think I can honestly say I’ve made every other album in a dark studio – no windows and the lights are down. Not that all of my other music sounded dark, even SweetSexySavage is very light. But sonically, [Blue Water Road] feels like the ocean,” she tells Billboard. “I have a friend who I surf with who told me, when he first listened to it, that my album sounds like what surfing feels like. Shoutout Juju the Jeweler. But when I heard that, now that I surf, it’s interesting because I think that is what my album feels like.”
As she rides the wave of her current prosperity, Kehlani hopes her fans will be able to join her.
“I hope that people understand that I’m always going to change and I’m always going to grow, so I hope that they enjoy this time period and enjoy the happiness and peace that I’ve reached,” they say. “I’m grateful that they’ve stuck around for this stage because I know it was a switch for people to see someone that they consider all over the place come to such a zen state. Just be happy for me, I’m chilling right now.”