This week, Kehlani looks to solidify her place in the industry with the Jan. 27 release of her highly anticipated debut studio LP, SweetSexySavage. It’s been a long journey — met with some bumps in the road — but the 21-year-old has proved that she’s more than capable of handling the challenge. What started as a runner-up effort with a teeny-bopper band on America’s Got Talent in 2011 quickly turned into a buzzworthy streak of two critically acclaimed mixtapes (You Should Be Here, the second and most popular, earned a 2016 Grammy nomination).
And there’s a lot more where that came from. From her first SoundCloud demo to projects released before You Should Be Here and after, the Oakland native’s style has always been as her current album’s title suggests. These are the 10 deep cuts from mixtapes, music streaming profiles, and the cutting-room floor that narrate Kehlani’s rise to this occasion and the influential mark she’s currently making in R&B.
Two years after placing fourth on the sixth season of America’s Got Talent with her cover band Pop Lyfe, Kehlani decided to take a solo turn. The first result was this SoundCloud upload, “Antisummerluv,” a stripped-down, slow groove modeling after R&B summer ballads of the ’60s. The only difference: This one rejects the notion of falling for the season’s fast-blooming romances, as Kehlani “swear[s]” — in a sweet, bluesy hook — that she is “anti summer love.”
“Get Away” (2014)
In a candid 2015 cover story for Fader, Kehlani revealed her arduous struggle post-America’s Got Talent, which included living homeless in Oakland, battling issues with body image and sexuality, and constantly stealing for basic necessities. It was Nick Cannon who saved her from furthering that troublesome lifestyle after hearing “Antisummerluv” on SoundCloud. After a failed (and inauthentic) try at a hip-hop group, Kehlani was given a third chance at breaking it big when Cannon bought her some studio time. She’d go on to record her debut mixtape, the critically praised Cloud 19. Sampling Ginuwine’s “So Anxious,” Kehlani oozes a ’90s throwback vibe in “Get Away” as she urges a cautious lover not to “let [her] love slip away” before it’s too late.
“Deserve Better” (2014)
This self-empowerment anthem from Cloud 19 could also pass as a perfect fit in between the title track of You Should Be Here and its “in-your-face” follower, “How That Taste.” With an instrumental that resembles those of anime video games, Kehlani delivers on her theme of moving on from undeserving lovers. The powerful hook of “Now I love the girl I’ve become/ I finally know the wrong that was done” sets the tone before the ultimate realization expressed in the song’s title.
“Act a Fool” (2014)
Before Kehlani cracked the Hot 100 last year with her mind-boggler “CRZY,” she already gave fans a taste of her trappy, energetic spirit in another stellar cut from Cloud 19. Like the mixtape’s opener, “FWU (F*** Wit U),” this “would-have-worked-for the Step Up soundtracks” proves that the singer not only has an ear for the commercial side, but also possesses the potential to take charge of it. The manic club banger features native Bay Area rapper Iamsu!, best known for his features on LoveRance’s sleeper hit “Up!” and Sage the Gemini’s viral sensation “Gas Pedal.”
“Lonely in December”/“What It’s All About” (2014)
Jahaan Sweet — the L.A.-based producer responsible for crafting most of the sound for Cloud 19 — linked up with Kehlani around the holiday season to release two Christmas tunes. Taking after the lead of R&B holiday classics such as Boyz II Men and Brian McKnight’s “Let It Snow,” Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” and The Emotions’ “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas,” the songs address the feelings of wanting to share the time with someone special. “Lonely in December” works as a New Jack Swing-style Christmas jaunt; while its B-side, “What It’s All About” (featuring fellow Tsunami Mob imprint artist Marteen Estevez), could have easily nuzzled its way in the rotation of adult contemporary holiday playlists with its out-of-sphere, piano-laced instrumental.
“Stay Up” (2014)
Kehlani proved she can be a sultry Bonnie to any male artist’s Clyde when she appeared on “Wrong” from Zayn’s bedroom-talk-laden debut, Mind of Mine. Two years prior to that show-stealing moment, the singer played the same role for up-and-coming Brooklyn rapper Dyme-A-Duzin in his mixtape Hip Hope. “Stay Up” best resembles a cross of Raphael Saadiq’s smoothness and the cadence of early ’00s R&B helmed by Bad Boy Records.
“Good Good” (2015)
A few weeks after releasing her sophomore, Grammy-nominated mixtape You Should Be Here, Kehlani signed a major label deal with Atlantic Records. The recording process included “Good Good,” a demo that contains a neo-soul fiber and capitalizes on an innuendo that Ashanti made popular on hip-hop and R&B stations in 2008. The songstress opens the tune with the lyric “deep like a bass, then you pop like a snare” — the line is most likely referencing the song’s production being powered by a snare drum — before praising the swagger of her lover.
“All In” (2015)
Kehlani partnered with Hawaii-based electronic-hip hop producer Mr. Carmack for this stunning West Coast slow burner. Centered around an outer space ambiance suited for a distant galaxy ruled by flutes, violins, and Bruce Hornsby & the Range greatest hits compilations, “All In” brings forth a chill, relaxing glider. The singer/songwriter’s lyricism is in full #DTR mode as she sings “I’m all in if you’re all in, baby” being reminiscent of Sade’s Love Deluxe.
Starting off with a Grammy nod, Kehlani’s 2016 was filled with both highlights and disappointments. She got caught up in an alleged love triangle with her at-the-time boyfriend, NBA star Kyle Irving, and her ex, PartyNextDoor. The rumors and their subsequent backlash would result in Kehlani’s hospitalization after an apparent suicide attempt. After her gracious recovery, she released a slew of promo singles for SweetSexySavage and contributed her highest charting smash to date, “Gangsta,” for the Suicide Squad soundtrack. Amid her busy solo career, she found the time to collaborate with Canadian rapper and Lemonade songwriter Belly on this intoxicated, trap glider that promises the utmost loyalty to a lover.