Kehlani‘s 2016 was marked by more highs and lows than most young artists see in their first five years in the public eye. The singer-songwriter began it with a Grammy nomination for her sophomore mixtape, You Should Be Here, and later weathered the public airing of romantic dirty laundry that led to an apparent suicide attempt.
“I really haven’t been putting any unnecessary pressures on myself,” the 21-year-old Oakland native tells Rolling Stone of balancing the extremes of last year with recording her new debut album, SweetSexySavage. “I just try to create and enjoy and live life day-by-day.”
For the LP, out Friday, she decided to take it easy on herself and trust her instincts. “I got nominated [for a Grammy] for a mixtape that I made 100 percent by myself,” she says. “It let me know people fuck with me for being myself.”
Kehlani spent nearly a year-and-a-half recording her sprawling manifesto, an eclectic, pop-leaning collection of trap, experimental R&B and classic neo-soul. Collaborating primarily with songwriting/production duo Pop & Oak, who are attached to about half the tracks on the album, the singer-songwriter split time between Philadelphia and Los Angeles to work on the LP. She tried to find a happy medium between her two mixtapes, releases where she felt the pressure of having to prove her artistry.
“[Cloud 19] was like, ‘Let me show I can sing!’ and [You Should Be Here] was, ‘Let me show I can write!’ This one’s like, ‘Let me show I can chill! And have fun!’ Really, I was just taking it easy.”
To capture this spirit, Kehlani went back to music that filled her with joy growing up. “Advice” shows a clear Nelly Furtado influence, and she also cites Natasha Bedingfield, Colbie Caillat, Gwen Stefani, Pink and other purveyors of “shit you wanna listen to in the morning to make you have a good day” as the biggest inspirations for her album.
“I don’t know why people think pop music is so bad,” she explains. “We’ve definitely gone into some shitty shit, and we’ve seen some corny shit. But that doesn’t mean pop music is corny. Nelly Furtado’s ‘Like a Bird’ and Natasha Bedindfield’s ‘Unwritten’ are both pop, and they just make you happy. I like shit that makes me happy.”
Early in her career, she says, she felt pressure to pigeonhole her sound, but these days, fitting into one genre is less of a concern. “People were like ‘You make R&B?'” she recalls. “I don’t even make R&B. I’ve been exploring different shit since Day One. The only thing I was against was making something that doesn’t sound like me, but I explore so many things I don’t even know what doesn’t sound like me anymore. If I feel like making a country song tomorrow, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Coming up, Kehlani is launching a headlining tour in February in support of SweetSexySavage and is booked up “until the fucking end of the century” but hopes to make some time for the “normal stuff” in between, “like furnishing a place for once, learning how to use a dishwasher, maybe learning how to drive.”
Still, as she tries to find time for daily life, she’s itching to get back in the studio: “I’m ready to start recording my next shit right now.”