Kehlani is known for rich, feather-light vocals that are utterly present while maintaining an unmistakably ’90s sound. Her silky, full-throated croon harkens all the way back to R&B’s golden era drawing easy comparisons to her influences Brandy, Aaliyah and TLC. But make no mistake: she can coast a moody, throwback-sampling R&B melody and sound right at home over today’s booming trap-laden beats. It’s the singer’s musical versatility that’s garnered the attention of her fans and helped propel her to the frontlines of today’s R&B.
Despite setbacks in the past, Kehlani’s grind remains constant and hasn’t let up since the doe-eyed crooner first released her single back in 2013. Fast-forward to today: the now Grammy-nominated singer will be honored as Billboard‘s “Rulebreaker” at this year’s Billboard Women In Music ceremony taking place on Thursday (Nov. 30).
From brooding love ballads to empowering anthems, here are Billboard‘s picks for Kehlani’s 10 best songs.
It didn’t take long for the music world to catch on to Kehlani’s talent, but long before becoming a Grammy-nominated artist, the Oakland singer was a fresh-faced, burgeoning singer looking for her big break. Her break came after uploading her first single “ANTISUMMERLUV” to Soundcloud, a downtempo, jazz-tinged earworm – courtesy of Derek “D.O.A” Allen – that provided the perfect melody for Lani to feather her honey warble over. She flips the summer romance cliché and sings about saving herself from falling into a temporary summer fling although she’s clearly enamored by the object of her affection.
If Kehlani’s collection of ballads proves one thing, it’s that the singer is heavily influenced by the sounds of throwback ’90s R&B, from the production to the singer’s vocal prowess. On “Get Away,” frequent Kehlani collaborator Jahaan Sweet whips up an ode to Ginuwine’s 1999 hit “So Anxious.” Throughout the song, Lani carries on the tributes to her influences by saluting “Jada in her prime” – referencing actress Jada Pinkett-Smith – and R&B singer Musiq Soulchild as she advises her lover not to be scared to take a risk with her before it’s too late.
Kehlani began to gain traction with the release of her Cloud 19 mixtape, causing many to wonder who the budding singer was. “FWU” was another welcome introduction for the singer as she not only further proved she had the vocal chops and songwriting skills but that she was also a triple-threat when she unveiled the dance-heavy music video. The Cloud 19 opening track finds Kehlani reassuring her man of her commitment and loyalty to him.
“The Way” ft. Chance the Rapper
One of the clear standout tracks on Kehlani’s sophomore mixtape, You Should Be Here, was the Chance the Rapper-assisted “The Way.” Kehlani’s soft, syrupy vocals float effortlessly over the textured slow-burner as she sings about being smitten over a boy who causes her to lose sleep at night because he’s all she thinks about. To boost the single more, Lani and Chance dropped off a black and white accompanying visual, where she performs a sultry choreographed routine and dances seductively all over Chance.
Rather than create cookie-cutter bubbly pop music like most 19-year budding talents, Kehlani opted to sing about more mature themes in her music, such as sexual freedom as evidenced by her early cut, “First Position.” On “First Position,” Kehlani is trying to persuade a female to join her for a steamy late-night rendezvous as she tells her leading lady, “Say baby, stop messing with those boys get you a lady.” Kehlani assembles an all-female cast for the sultry visual. Speaking to The Fader about the inspiration behind the video, Kehlani revealed, “The inspiration behind the song was me trying to show young people in the LGBTQ community that you don’t have to hide anything. You can be adventurous and outspoken about your sexuality.”
In contrast to the brooding ballads and romantic love songs, Kehlani took a different approach for “Did I” – a lively, upbeat jam and a dedication to Lani’s critics. The Oakland native oozes her bravado onto the track as she departs from her delicate croons and channels a rap-sing flow. She confidently brags, “You think we competing for rings, you think you playing in my league/ But you couldn’t catch up if I took a break and vacationed for weeks on top of weeks.” Lani continues to taunt her detractors and assures haters that she’s earned bragging rights.
“You Should Be Here”
The title track for Kehlani’s Grammy-nominated mixtape, You Should Be Here, is one of the album’s most vulnerable cuts. Here, Kehlani is well aware her relationship is dissipating and she’s losing the interest of her lover. The disconnect is taking a toll on Kehlani, who pleads with her lover to return to her in an attempt to repair the strained relationship.
After churning out singles for years, 2016 was the year things started to look up for Kehlani. She nabbed a Grammy nomination for her 2015 mixtape You Should Be Here and earned her first-ever Billboard Hot 100 hit with “Gangsta,” her contribution to the 2016 film Suicide Squad’s soundtrack. The smoky, haunting ballad served as a fitting song for the film’s protagonists Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and The Joker’s (Jared Leto) tumultuous romance. Lani told Zane Lowe – who premiered the track – that she was drawn to the song because of “this emotional quality to it, this raw, broken yet strong, haunting quality to it.”
The top of 2016 saw Kehlani at her lowest; she was embroiled in a public breakup with then-Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kyrie Irving, and she was hospitalized following an attempt at self-harm. She bounced back more badass than ever with the confidence-boosting anthem “CRZY” as she regained control over her life and shifted the focus back to her music. “Everything I do, I do it with a passion/ If I gotta be a bitch, I’ma be a bad one,” she asserts from the outset of the track. The energetic, Benny Boom-directed video saw the singer surrounded by her friends and a birthday cake as she celebrated her blessings. (The song appeared on her 2017 debut album SweetSexySavage.)
As 2016 winded down, Kehlani dropped off the infectious “Distraction,” a breezy, ’90s-nodding track with vocal runs reminiscent of R&B singer Brandy, incessant drum strikes, and a driving bass line. Kehlani sings about wanting the perks of a relationship without the commitment because her “life can get crazy” and she doesn’t want any distractions. (The song appeared on her 2017 debut album SweetSexySavage.)