Review: Kehlani, SweetSexySavage

Kehlani Parrish’s long-awaited debut falls short of brilliant, but does instill a new confidence in Parrish’s abilities as a musician and personality.
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A line in Lily Allen’s Yeezy-inspired “Sheezus” goes “kid ain’t one to fuck with when she’s only on her debut.” The line in question refers to Lorde, who at the time blasted onto the scene with Pure Heroine, a cohesive and mature collection of tracks all stemming from the mind of a 17-year-old prodigy.

After three years in the game, Kehlani Ashley Parrish is now finally on her debut, and like Lorde, is not one to be fucked with either. Musically (production-wise), SweetSexySavage relays nothing new, but Parris herself is a fascinating character to watch as she unfurls her talents. “Typical tale of an orphan girl” she tells us, yet Parrish’s tale stands out among the rest of her musical peers. At times girly and others gangster, she juggles the confidence and insecurities of young-adulthood with the experience of an older soul. Her voice alone can sound as smooth as Jhené Aiko or as lofty and adolescent as Justin Bieber’s, allowing her to evoke a variety of personas.

Keeping with the title, Parrish navigates through a plethora of emotions, ones that she’s been explicit of in the past and continues to delve into with the same gumption. Rather than lie to her lovers, she throws her ‘savagery’ in their faces, albeit with a warning. Coming in hot on “Keep On”, Parrish struts through her flaws instead of wallowing in them; deftly, she implies that it is those very same flaws which bring her lovers back to her. That’s not to say she’s heartless about it—far from it. On “Personal” (which arrives sounding a lot like it’s gonna become “No Problems”), she adopts the point-of-view of the subject in Jhené Aiko’s “The Worst”: “I know it hurts, I know/Hurts I know/hurts I know” rolls-out just as Aiko’s voices does, but in this case Parrish is delivering the bad news rather than experiencing it firsthand.

As savage as she becomes, Parrish does turn it off while trying to turn you on. “Keep me right and keep me up all night” is sensually spit over a beat fit for a ‘90s R&B darling on “Distraction”. Her expertise with sweet-talk is matched by a strong grasp on a music trends of the past. The Akon-sampling “Undercover” sends Parrish sliding into your heart as easily as your bed; and that sample, now 10 years old, showcases not only shrewd composition skills but also a mid-aughts nostalgia that will undoubtedly surge in the coming years. Parrish, who’s only 21, signals here the onslaught of inevitable Rihanna, Fergie, Sean Paul, and Lil Jon samplings to come as acts like Parrish come of age in an era plagued with 90s nostalgia. This longing comes full circle with the minimalistic echoes on “Everything Is Yours”, where Parrish hits the ‘sweet’ spot over a dissonant trip-hop background reminiscent of Kelela, Sevdaliza, or FKA Twigs. As touching as it is, “Everything Is Yours” hangs on a thread, ready to be cut loose if the feeling is not reciprocated.

Where the album falters lies in its consistency, that is to say it grows comfortable repeating the same melodic ideas and tempos to the point where the latter half grows forgettable. Evidence of this comes at the halfway point with “Not Used To This”, which loses its momentum as Parrish runs the same lap around the chorus. Furthermore, much of SweetSexySavage struggles to differentiate itself, whether it’s Parrish coming up short on lyricisms or simply the production blending into a homogenous ambiance. In its efforts to give homage to the past, the record often finds itself trapped within its formula, a downright shame considering Parrish appears capable of taking all sorts of risks in multiple genres.

That being said, SweetSexySavage, because of its consistency, can be run through easily, especially in a car with the windows down and the bass up. Feminism, rebellion, and plain old badassery pour from Parrish’s lips, and her melodic sensibilities are sharp enough keep you engrossed. If you stay in your seat long enough, you eventually reach the climax, “Too Much”, a brilliant ode to womanhood with a stellar chorus. As she contracts over synthesized undertones, Parrish swings forward at a sensual pace you can’t keep up with but for her is just cruise control. But this pace is also far too slow for someone with Parrish’s level of drive, and feels like watching an Olympic gymnast just do a ton of cartwheels. Yeah, they look flawless, but we want to see some backflips. B MINUS