When we reach the conference room for our interview, she leans all the way back in her chair, legs spread open wide, one arm propped up beside her. Her heart-shaped face — delicately dotted with a paper plane tattoo — is cocked to the side, and her nude-glossed lips fall into a pout when she admits she’s tired from all the recent travel. Sexy.
But it’s after our chat that I see her savage side: As she gives herself a tour, she comments on the number of female employees on the staff, not hesitating for a second before cupping her tattoo-smattered hands around her mouth to yell “Pussy power!” to a round of laughs and applause.
SweetSexySavage is indeed a spot-on description for the 21-year-old Grammy-nominated R&B singer behind the name. It is also the perfect title for her first official album, a head nod-inducing record with a multilayered sound, at once buoyant and bright, seductive and alluring, bossy and raunchy — equally fit to be blasted while driving full-speed down the freeway or getting dressed for a Saturday night out. Kehlani’s ability to translate her complicated, at times tragic backstory into poignant lyrics and moving melodies has kept the music industry eagerly awaiting the release of her first official album — so it’s surprising that above all, the adjective that most accurately describes both Kehlani’s current mood and new album is simply: Happy.
“Knowing what I’ve gone through in my life, I don’t want to keep going through that, reliving the emotion behind this song or reliving the anxiety behind that song,” she says. “So now, I’m just making stuff that makes me happy. People might want to hear a sad ass album from me, but I don't give a fuck. Right now, I want to fill my life and music with beautiful vibes.”
What she’s “been through” is humble shorthand for the dozens of obstacles life put in her way before she could even talk, the kind of hurdles that could derail even the strongest person. Over two decades before she became this week’s third-highest ranked new album on the Billboard charts, her drug-addicted father passed away; while her mother bounced between drug addiction and prison stints, she was in foster care before her aunt adopted her.
“Bigger than just being on a stage in front of a camera, in front of a celebrity panel of judges and things like that, PopLyfe and AGT really taught me how the industry works,” Kehlani says. “It made me realize I was capable of doing that as a day job: Showing up to a set, working with people, working with professionals, sitting in front of cameras comfortably. It was all a really dope experience and it trained me more than anything on how to deal with a solo career.”
She also picked up a thing or two from her AGT mentor.
“Nick Cannon taught me that whatever you love to do, no matter how people feel about it, do it, and do it full force.”
Though PopLyfe fizzled, that moment was just the beginning of Kehlani’s ascent; after a buzz-y EP Cloud19 in 2014, her raw, introspective mixtape You Should Be Here earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album the following year. She was a rising star, on the cusp of something bigger than herself — the captivating, edgy musician on the tips of everyone’s tongues.
And then, just over a month after the Grammy’s, she attempted suicide. It was a moment that shocked fans and music lovers alike. Though she’s never confirmed exactly what happened, a since-deleted, cryptic Instagram from the hospital led most followers to believe she’d tried to take her life after cyber trolls relentlessly attacked her for allegedly cheating on then-boyfriend, NBA player Kyrie Irving, with her ex, R&B singer PartyNextDoor.
And just like that, as close as she was to becoming a household name, Kehlani suddenly disappeared from the public eye. A four-month mental break began on the beaches of Hawaii, where the first seeds for SweetSexySavage were planted. Then it was on to Vancouver and Philly to record; the album, she says, became her rehabilitation, a period in time when she learned that ultimately, every person is in control of their own happiness.
"I was born with the backbone of a lot of strong cultures. Black women are fucking amazing. Latina women are fucking epic. Native American women are healers. All of those things made me into the woman I am."
Inspirations from her time off, the sounds of each city she recorded in, and childhood favorites like Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill (whose face holds a special place on Kehlani’s left arm as a tattoo) led to the '90s R&B-infused SweetSexySavage. The lyrics deviate from the more melancholy music of her past, instead focusing on carefree romance and being a woman in charge. (A personal favorite of this writer is the track "Too Much," with its chorus "I'm too much of a woman/Too much of a woman/Too much of a badass bitch/Too much of a boss/Baby it's your loss/Now you gotta live with it..." Girl...)
Though her new outlook on life overflowed into a bubbly project full of sunshine, Kehlani admits it was a challenge balancing that positive perspective when the culture and climate around her was in upheaval.
“I am very easily affected by the things that go on in the world, so I purposely don’t follow that many pages on Twitter, and I had to delete the CNN app,” she says. “As much as I want to stay informed, I choose to tap into resources on my own time — but make sure they’re resources that don’t instill fear or hatred in my heart.”
Though at times she feels the need to protect her own creativity and energy, she also knows that she can’t completely check out — because as an artist with resources and a platform, she feels she has a responsibility, one she’s taken advantage of by speaking out about the Women’s March and suicide prevention efforts through her shows and social media.
“We artists can’t all keep complaining that we’re so mad and then not do shit to help out,” she says. “Everyone’s busy saying, ‘Fuck this guy,’ but you have all this money, and where are you putting it? We can go march and scream all we want to about these things, but we have too much money and too much power to not be running our own communities ourselves…I just want to tell some of these artists, Come on, bro! You live with three people…why do you need seventeen rooms? Put that money elsewhere. It doesn’t make no fucking sense."
(For the record, the L.A. resident says she lives in “the smallest little apartment with two cats and three best friends — it’s not a glamorous fucking life, just real chill shit.” Real chill shit includes meditating, walking on the beach, and watching Netflix’s The OA, which she calls “the most life-changing thing she’s ever watched.”)
“I’m lucky that I was born with the backbone of a lot of really strong cultures,” she says. “Black women are fucking amazing; people have taken and taken continuously from us and we continue to give with no hesitation. Latina women are fucking epic, just beautiful, strong, artistic…and then Native American women are healers; they’re very patient and very resilient. So yeah, I think all of those things have subconsciously influenced me and made me into the woman I am.”
Kehlani loves to talk, and when a subject she’s passionate about peaks her interest, her entire demeanor changes. When we start talking about whether women in the surprisingly still male-dominated music industry support one another, her raspy Oakland accent quickens; pink stiletto manicured nails punctuate each point.
“I cannot believe the industry still compares us like crazy,” she says. “Like, they only let one woman do one thing at a time, and we already fought for that spot, and then you’re going to put us against each other and make it so only one woman can have that one title that we fought for? Doesn’t make any fucking sense to me!”
"We’re women, we have it hard enough; why would we play into the media and fans on social media trying to pit us against one another?”
“I’ve been in a room and seen two artists not speak to each other, all over a beef that was started by their fan bases,” she says. “Y’all don’t even sound anything alike! I just want to tell them ‘Just give her a hug and say ‘I’m glad we’re both doing it.’ I love fan bases, but there’s a difference between fan bases and then stan bases that literally spend all day trashing other artists. We’re women, we have it hard enough; why would we play into the media and fans on social media trying to pit us against one another?”
She’s hitting the road later this month, and already has plans outside of music that include everything from doing voiceovers to writing children’s books. But for now, Kehlani's just riding the SweetSexySavage wave — and embracing everything that comes with those labels.
As she walks out of the R29 office, she types distractedly on her iPhone, sharp nails tapping furiously at the glass. She gives a half attentive wave goodbye, before she stops, turns around, and drinks in the office through her wide, round eyes one last time. And then: That smile again, the tip of her tongue gently between her teeth as she waves goodbye. Sweet, sexy, savage — and happy.
Watch our Facebook Live video with Kehlani — where she talks more about creating the album, how she learned to accept her sexuality, those tattoos, and more — below.