Three years ago, KEHLANI was homeless. Just last year, she attempted to commit suicide. This year, she released her opus, and one of the best records of the year in SweetSexySavage. Criminally underrated, she is an unconventional popstar - she is on a major label but makes genuine and real RnB/pop that has a direct connection to fans. A true product of the internet, where artists have no barrier between themselves and their fanbase, she has always been upfront and undeniably real, which - when coupled with her impeccable knack for writing damn good songs - has seen her garner a loyal following worldwide, even extending to a thousand or so adoring fans in Brisbane, Australia.
After the news broke that Kehlani was hospitalised in early 2016, she took some time off shows to focus on herself. Fast forward a year, and she released her first real album after two successful mixtapes, in SweetSexySavage. Still her genuine self, Kehlani sung about real themes such as personal flaws, escaping reality, relationships and love, and all other themes that are important to her. But, this wasn't your standard, highly-produced major-label expertly-crafted robot-pop record. This was a highly produced, major label, expertly crafted pop record, but there was nothing robotic about it. Instead, it was Kehlani's raspy voice telling her true stories, singing songs she had written herself, and it was real. This album was all her, all the time, and it is an incredibly important album at that.
Coming on stage to thunderous screams after her DJ played some of the hottest hits to get the crowd in the mood (Kendrick's 'Humble', Rihanna, DJ Khaled and Bryson Tiller's 'Wild Thoughts', Cardi B's 'Bodak Yellow), the crowd was both explosive and attentive. Hard to believe, but it's true. With every second getting closer to Kehlani's arrival, the screams grew louder but the focus grew stronger as everyone waited to erupt when she came on stage. Finally she was there, and in no time at all she had kicked off with SweetSexySavage openers, 'Keep On' and 'Distraction'. Flanked by two back up dancers and looking almost impossibly comfortable, Kehlani was often drowned out from the crowd singing back every single word to her. The energy was truly palpable, and it only got better from here.
Plug into the latest music with our FREE weekly newsletter
Playing the majority of her SweetSexySavage record, such as 'Personal', 'Escape', and 'Do U Dirty' among others, as well as a few other choice cuts such as 'Gangsta' from the Suicide Squad soundtrack, Kehlani was hellbent on getting through as much of her material as possible, and although that's what we were there for, she was also intent on giving some advice to her fans as well. From discussing love in all its shapes and forms, to how she's an empath and her vital need for self care, she broke up sets of songs with pleas to the audience to make promises to her. Promises to love, promises to look after ourselves and more, and despite the at-capacity crowd, there was something about how she spoke that made us all feel like she was speaking directly to each and every one of us. This was more than the standard, "Thank you whatever city I'm in, I love all my fans!" This was heartfelt, real connection - the same connection she initially saw success from, and the same connection she will dominate the world with.
SweetSexySavage is a record about being flawed. From the intro, which is a spoken word poem written by Reyna Biddy that serves as an apology and a plea to accept and acknowledge a woman in her entirety - flaws and all. From there, Kehlani sings about knowing you're not good to someone and wondering why they keep taking you back in 'Keep On', to knowing you should take your own advice in 'Advice', to needing an escape from reality in 'Escape', and so on. It's another insight into Kehlani and her life which she so beautifully lays out on the table for all to see. Maybe it's a form of catharsis to be so public about her plight and her struggles, which in turn becomes cathartic in itself for others to listen to and relate on all kinds of levels, and so on to the point where you have an audience crying as she sings her songs. Ultimately, however, it was a triumph from her reckoning with her mental health last year to release this just a few months later, and her first ever Australian show was a celebration. Not just for specifically Kehlani (even though that was a large part of it), but also of the general feeling of overcoming depression, anxiety, bad luck, unfortunate events etc. It was a celebration of coming out the other side and being thankful you stuck around.
During her first show back on April 14th, 2016 after her suicide attempt, during which she revealed it wasn't the first time she had tried, Kehlani opened up to fans and said, “And from me to you, you are worth it, you are perfect, you need to be here every single day that you are meant to be here. Get up every day and know that and tell yourself that.” It was clear that she meant this, and has been working hard ever since to practice what she preached that day. In a world where music is almost relentless, and the constant stream of records from all over the place can just turn into loud white noise, it takes something truly special to have a connection like SweetSexySavage did around the world, and this is clearly evident from her worldwide tour. Speaking from personal experience as someone who grapples with my own mental health at times, it was truly extraordinary to see someone not just dust themselves off and keep on moving, but to do so in such a triumphant way, and it's a performance that will stick with me for some time. Thank you, Kehlani.
If you or someone you know needs support in a crisis situation please call BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 for 24/7 counselling.
Words by Emma Jones