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Kehlani Ashley Parrish, the Oakland-born and internationally beloved R&B singer-songwriter, is a Taurus. As the second sign in the Zodiac — the bull, an earth sign — the Taurus is sensual, stubborn, honest, driven in their goals the way a toro vaults itself toward the matador’s red cape. Venus rules over the Taurus constellation, the planet of love, beauty, money, abundance, lushness, serenity. Taurus are loyal, at times painfully so; they can be depended upon, hooves tracing paths in the sand again and again.
Born April 24, 1995, Kehlani treads close to the cusp of Aries. We can see this in their presence on the sixth season of “America’s Got Talent” back in 2011, leading the vocals for the now-disbanded teen soul band Poplyfe. The band, managed by Tony! Toni! Toné! founder D’wayne Wiggins (two of his sons were Poplyfe members), placed fourth overall; Piers Morgan encouraged her to go solo.
Aries is the first sign of the Zodiac, the leader, the incendiary harbinger of a new cycle. We can see this in Kehlani’s organic, near-immediate popularity in the Bay Area summer of 2014 with the Soundcloud mixtape, “Cloud 19,” then a Grammy nomination for 2015’s “You Should Be Here.” Their increasing publicity, steady musical output, growing tour venues and millions-strong social media following felt natural. Like a wave washing over the world.
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On Sept. 30, Kehlani will return to Oakland as part of their sonic pilgrimage, the “Blue Water Road Trip” tour. A show at the Oakland Arena for an Oakland native no longer seems so unfathomable.
Kehlani has soared beyond what most Bay Area artists can ever expect of a music career, like an air sign. Their first two mixtapes depicted them from a looming vantage point, first on the wing of a plane (“Cloud 19”) and then atop a skyscraper looking out across a foggy bay (“YSBH”), the Golden Gate Bridge and Transamerica Pyramid peeking from clouds swirling and pink. After Poplyfe disbanded, Kehlani flitted around California, trying to find their way into the music industry, sleeping on couches and writing songs, entering and exiting groups that did not suit them, heels in the dirt, going going going.
But, by far, Kehlani is most in their element in water. We can swim back upstream to “YSBH,” the tape that would land her a deal with Atlantic Records and national media attention. Like its predecessor, the 15 tracks of “YSBH” traverse the burdens of young love; of shedding the games and schadenfreude of adolescence; of accepting what you must carry into the next chapter. On “Be Alright,” they put their trust in the tide, in the ocean’s buoyant embrace, to bring them from the riptide of young adulthood.
So anyone who’s been paying attention, who has refrained from engaging in the turgid tabloid narratives of their dating life and instead looked into the music, the deep well of a decade of lessons, would know that their new album, “blue water road,” was inevitable.
Released April 29, this is Kehlani’s shortest official album to date. Kehlani is listed as a songwriter on each of “BWR’s” 13 tracks, which convey, in just under 38 minutes, the soft ripples of a thriving tide pool, fertile and warm, not so much shallow as contained, letting the tide ebb and flow around it. There is also — as other artists like Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish have done — the stylistic choice to forgo capitalization, in what the music critic Lindsay Zoladz has called the “lowercase girl” phenomenon. Invaluable feminist scholar bell hooks similarly championed the lowercase to take attention from herself and focus it on the work, on the experience of consuming, digesting, thinking. After a year of laying low, for an artist whose romantic past has been cannibalized for headlines and made into sonic soil, Kehlani gives you the feeling they would rather you please, focus on the music, dip in the pool. And what a pool it is.
If “SweetSexySavage,” their 2017 debut studio album on Atlantic, felt like a raucous summer on Telegraph Avenue, shouting proclamations of love and lessons learned through The Town, and 2020’s “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” was a frank series of insights and admissions shared at a late night kickback, “BWR” is at the beach, at the river: Your body submerged as the thoughts unspool from those deep thrums, a current formed within.
In the album opener, “little story,” Kehlani asks a lover for a favor. Rather than construing memories of love, lust and heartbreak into their own narratives, now they want to be the subject, to be written into someone else’s life: “I want you to pick up the pen/ and write me into your story/ you know I love a story, only/ when you’re the author.” Like any good story, there are obstacles, there are flaws and the happy ending seems elusive verse to verse. But Kehlani has always focused more on the edgeless process of love, on how we move into it, through it and past it. Like water.
The production here, as throughout the album, is perhaps the lightest it’s ever been, stepping away from the hyphy beats and 808 backbones of past albums for bubbling synths, strings that tinkle like beachfront wind chimes, salt in the air. Where “SSS” conceded some radio and dance tracks with Kehlani’s lyrical clairvoyance, and “IWGUIW” interpolated classic works to rummage through incompatibility, self-awareness and sensual irrationality, “blue water road” feels ready to confess, to own all the bad parts and look on them with joy.
This is Kehlani’s first album since publicly coming out as both a lesbian and nonbinary, but it isn’t really about those things. Whereas past projects have bemoaned, lauded, entombed both male and female lovers, this one feels pointedly sapphic, with some of Kehlani’s most distilled lyrics of yearning, reciprocity and a knowing that feels no pressure to prove itself. On “any given sunday,” the lucky lady is a dancer at a strip club, and Kehlani is eager to spoil, to traverse the previous gender dynamics of adult entertainment to make it rain (water!).
There are still rough edges, mistakes, leaning into a fight. The duet “get me started” with The Internet’s Syd speaks of a love in dysfunction, “you need somethin’ else/ well maybe she can do it/ better (better)/ i guess, choose peace over/ stress.” There are some verses from male artists, including Justin Bieber, but these don’t reach the depths of the songs Kehlani shares with women, nor those they carry alone.
The star of the album is twofold: “altar” followed by “melt.” Most of Kehlani’s songs have centered on love, its romantic contours and scarred shadows, the depths to which it pulls us and the stratospheres we shatter when it is just so good. In a time of isolation, where people have lost sight of love in all its shapes, here we are reminded how close we can be, if only we reached out. But alongside love, “BWR” is undeniably informed by loss. On “altar,” the lead single, Kehlani conjures a eulogy to loved ones lost — be they lovers, friends or family — promising them water, good food, to traverse the distance of death for more time. This ticks right into “melt,” the album’s heart, Kehlani’s favorite, a song that feels just like when balm meets skin, warmed from within and spreading. Many of their past love songs have been about achieving love, about all the things that get in the way of it, but “melt” has no arguments, pleads no case. The two are one, indefinitely. After all, there is no way to unmelt what has been fused and remade.
In a short series of YouTube videos accompanying the album release, Kehlani divulges more on their process for the album, as well as the spiritual journey that incubated it. But these videos also signal an end of sorts — the parsing of toxic love, of giving without receiving, is over for now.
In those early days, Kehlani’s fanbase was called Tsunami Mob, after a childhood nickname “Lani Tsunami.” They’ve talked extensively in early interviews about the “come up” era where artists must espouse their suffering and the blood, tears, sweat — water, water, water — about their family’s dysfunction, about the homelessness and false starts that led them to fame. Kehlani grew up like many Oakland kids do, treading the waters of a community compounded by socioeconomic storms and governments withholding life vests. That they have managed to reach air, to create the music and art they love on their own terms and a fortune to match feels special. For them, the tsunami is finally over; “blue water road” feels like that babbling brook.
Kehlani puts on their “Blue Water Road Trip” show, with openers Rico Nasty and Destin Conrad, at 8 p.m. Sept 30 at Oakland Arena, 700 Joe Morgan Way, Oakland. Tickets, $70.35, are going fast and are available at https://www.ticketmaster.com/event/1C005CABA3843C22.