The singer brings a new, positive outlook to her soulful R&B. 

kehlani photo by patrick ainsworth for my spilt milk
Kehlani, by Patrick Ainsworth

Kehlani has plenty of reasons to be jaded. The 22-year-old's 2015 mixtape, You Should Be Here, opens with an intro, on which her solemn, serious voice delivers a melodic message, “as much as anyone can say how invincible I seem or how fearless I am or how brave I must be, I’m still human. And I’ve seen things and I’ve felt more pain that some will in their entire lives, all before the age of even being able to buy a fucking drink at a bar.” These things--parents in and out of jail, a family dealing with addiction problems, time spent in foster care and on the streets--certainly warrant a hardened world view.

You Should Be Here  fits the hip-hop underdog narrative, but Kehlani emerged this year with a new lightness on SweetSexySavage. Katherine St. Asaph in Pitchfork described her new album as “refreshingly self-assured” and “blunt, unflinching, and exuberant.” This album’s opener keys us in to how she’s grown: “The truth is, I’m a superwoman…. Some days I’m a crazy woman for still waiting, for still loving harder even if I’m aching.”

Content-wise, her set this Friday at 5 p.m. on Voodoo's Altar Stage promises to be something we haven’t quite seen before, and there is reason to believe her vibe has changed too.

Ashley Uzer interviewed Kehlani for Galore about her upbeat narrative in SweetSexySavage. “I think people notice by now that I don’t really have any sad songs or songs that stay in the negative situation,” she said. “If they are talking about a negative situation, it’s usually like, ‘well, I’m stronger now,’ or ‘I’m getting better now,’ or ‘I don’t want to feel like that again.'” As Uzer notes, this positive, non-complaining outlook alone sets the singer out against her genre counterparts. 

Now, in a genre that too often treats love as weakness or death row reprieve, Kehlani takes it easy. “Honey,” for example, sets her raspy vocal next to an acoustic guitar as she sings, range, she sings, “I like my girls like I like my honey.” It could be another artist entirely from her in 2015 singing “Runnin’” with a trace-like beat under the more aggressive, “Oakland girls so damn hood but we so damn pretty.”

Kehlani has brought a similar accepting ease to her social media. On it, she has voiced her support for immigrants, women, the LGBTQIA community and spoken out about mental health. She seems to enjoy the platform she worked so hard to earn, and she's not shy about it. She weaves her relationship with her own bisexuality into SweetSexySavage as a meditation on all she’s thankful for. Her positivity is now what colors her presence in the music world and on stage, but she hasn’t lost her badass nature to this maturity. On “CRZY, she sings, "If I gotta be a bitch, I’m a be a bad one.” 

“Grateful and focused,” she wrote last week in one Instagram post. In another: “Daily reminder that life isn’t as serious as we make it.”