Kehlani steps out of the woods

Digital cover: While they confirmed their status as one of the defining voices of contemporary R&B, Kehlani endured a rocky rise to fame. Now, the Oakland singer is in a happier place, celebrating lesbian love stories on new album Blue Water Road.

When we meet for breakfast on a Malibu pier during a balmy mid-April morning, Kehlani is just a few weeks from their twenty-seventh birthday. But they’re not feeling their age. They feel more like they’re about to turn 50.

I feel old, yo,” Kehlani says as they pick at a bowl of granola and an egg sandwich. I really do.” Their biggest concern these days is more in line with a beach-bum retiree than a global R&B star: they’re trying to figure out how to fit surfing daily into their schedule.

I’m trying to watch three documentaries a week,” they say. I’m trying to get through all these James Baldwin essays. I’m at that point.” It’s an understandable slow-down period. Kehlani released their first mixtape at 19 and has been prolific since: the two mixtapes (including 2016’s Grammy-nominated You Should Be Here) and two studio albums that followed cemented them as one of the defining R&B artists of their generation. These days, they have the energy of someone who has recently figured out the key to happiness.

If I could name this chapter of my life, it’d be, Oh… so, this is life!’” Kehlani says, enunciating the ellipsis as dot-dot-dot” to make sure I get the punctuation right. That’s probably what I’m gonna name my future book.”

Kehlani spent the weekend celebrating the third birthday of their daughter, Adeya, with a giant water gun fight and a special appearance from Frozens Elsa. (“She was dragging Elsa around this party,” Kehlani says, shaking their head. Elsa was about to pass out from heatstroke.”) They also observed the seven-month anniversary of their relationship with the rapper 070 Shake. We had a check-in,” Kehlani tells me, before cackling when I inform them that celebrating a seven-month anniversary with a check-in” is very gay behaviour. A check-in and some wine,” they confirm. We went to the beach yesterday.”

Kehlani’s third studio album, Blue Water Road, is due out April 29th. It was recorded at an Airbnb in Malibu, not far from where we’re having breakfast. The songs came from a pivotal period in Kehlani’s life. Over the past two years, they came out as a lesbian, began using she/​they pronouns and chose to have their breast implants removed. Even in the midst of these significant changes – or perhaps, because of them – the album sounds like it comes from a place of security, of knowing oneself both in and out of a relationship and learning, in Kehlani’s words, how to prioritise joy in daily life.

I think there’s a big difference between happiness, contentment and joy,” Kehlani says. I’ve had to actually sit [with my therapist] and write down, this is a moment where I’m experiencing what I think is joy.’ How do I implement this? Not only implement this into my life, but how do I let this lead and let these experiences be the prioritising factors?”

From there, Blue Water Road – executive produced by longtime collaborator Pop Wansel and named after the street it was recorded on – emerged. I made the album that I wanted to make,” Kehlani says. And it’s always going to mean the most to me for the rest of my life, because it’s my first fully comfortable and out piece of music.”

That Kehlani is still here is significant in itself. And it took a prolonged period of rebuilding and personal growth to make it through. In early 2016, Kehlani endured a significant mental health crisis after gossip sites picked up on a rumour that they’d cheated on their then-boyfriend, NBA player Kyrie Irving. Kehlani ended up in the hospital after a suicide attempt and considered quitting music. A couple years later, Irving made a point of putting the cheating storylines to rest.

Even now, it’s still difficult for Kehlani to see their name in the news or trending. Ever since 2016, me going viral for anything that isn’t music gives me the fucking shudders,” they say. I’m just so used to earth-shattering shit.”

Their 2017 debut studio album SweetSexySavage was a commercial success, peaking at Number 3 on the US Billboard chart, but Kehlani was still reeling from the fallout of the breakup with Irving when it was recorded. I have moments where I’m like, how did I come back from that privately, and how did I come back from that publicly?” they say. Because the way that it chased me around for years… If I hadn’t been as strong as I was, I would have quit.”

But, of course, they didn’t. In March 2019, they gave birth to Adeya, whom they now co-parent with their ex, musician Javaughn Young-White. In May 2020, Kehlani released their second album It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, which reached Number 2 on the Billboard Chart and featured collaborations with James Blake, Ty Dolla $ign, Jhené Aiko and a since-removed Tory Lanez feature. Promoting the album while stuck at home in the midst of the early COVID-19 lockdown, Kehlani even co-produced and directed most of the visuals. That year, they also made the spiritual choice” to spend a year living completely sober.

These days, however, Kehlani’s dabbling in shrooms and drinking wine again. I’m a wino,” they tell me, flashing a forearm tattoo of a rhino with a wine bottle as its nose, a few inches removed from a conspicuously labial rendering of a conch shell. But because they also have a three-year-old, they’re also up by six most mornings.

They’ve been surfing, listening to bossa nova and classical music at home, and reading every day (currently: the fantasy YA novel Children of Blood and Bone, an assortment of Baldwin essays, Letters To a Young Poet). They’ve also been spending a lot of time with her 50-something neighbour, Dot, who hosts a weekly Wednesday dinner down the street from Kehlani, in a house overflowing with teapots and cookbooks. She also has, like, signs everywhere that say: Friends don’t let friends vote Republican.’ She’s fucking funny. She has stories. She’s a potty mouth. I fucking love that.”

It’s an amusing scene to imagine, sure – tatted-up Kehlani joining a weekly potluck with their boomer neighbours in between tour dates in Brazil – but dinner dates with Dot and co. have been a meaningful routine for them. I bring wine.” (Chardonnay, to be exact.) It’s me and a bunch of old ladies,” they say. I’m not used to actually having [a] community.”

Kehlani’s childhood in Oakland was unstable: both their parents struggled with drug addiction and their father died at 24. Kehlani was primarily raised by an aunt. After they appeared on America’s Got Talent in 2011, as a member of the teen group Poplyfe, the rapper, producer and TV host Nick Cannon took an interest in Kehlani’s career, helping with industry connections and studio time in Los Angeles. By the age of 20, they were signed to Atlantic.

Kehlani is small in stature and naturally radiant. They are quick to laugh and to smile – a pair of dimples has never been so dazzling – and generous with their time (and with food, offering me the other half of their sandwich almost as soon as it’s delivered). When I ask if Kehlani is in love, they practically melt into their seat, crumpling into a giddy smile.

Kehlani and 070 Shake (birth name Danielle Balbuena) have been friends for years, and they got involved romantically last year. The relationship inspired Kehlani’s new music. While Kehlani’s previous albums were typified by the messy complexities that are typical of early adulthood (“I can’t name too many healthy love songs in my entire discography,” they admit), Blue Water Road sounds like it luxuriates in a more settled place. Musically, I feel like I’m writing actual love songs now.”

Blue Water Road is also, by Kehlani’s own measure, their first gay album”. Kehlani has put out songs about women in the past – Escape from SweetSexySavage and their 2019 single Nights Like This, for example, as well as memorably steamy duets with Victoria Monét and Teyana Taylor. But Kehlani had become fatigued with being the token gay bitch”, someone who’s called in to add a titillating factor to a track. Blue Water Road is a clear departure from that model. Like Syd and Frank Ocean before them, Kehlani has made an R&B album that explores queerness in depth, centring around lesbian love stories.

Melt is a clear and lovely tribute to Shake (“If I didn’t have all these tattoos I would think that it’s your skin/​If I move too quick past you, I would think it’s my reflection”). There’s also a strip club anthem, in which Kehlani instructs a dancer to call me daddy”, and two duets with women, Jessie Reyez and Syd. (Turns out Kehlani has a bunch of songs with Syd – whom they first met as a teenage fan, after approaching her for a pic outside of Odd Future’s tour bus in San Francisco – which they hope will evolve into an album one day.) Tangerine, meanwhile, is a sexy and yearning ode to, well, eating pussy. I’m really hoping people get it,” Kehlani says. I feel like it doesn’t reveal itself until the last second, when you hear, I can taste me on you.’” I assure them people will probably figure it out.

I wonder if my label has considered the fact that I kind of kicked 75 per cent of my male audience away,” Kehlani says and then shrugs off. The numbers is numbering. I grow every single year. If they listen and they haven’t heard the pronoun that they’re waiting for, that’s on them.”

It all amounts to a transitional moment for Kehlani, an assertive shift in their mission statement. And while coming out can be a catalysing decision for anyone, Kehlani has done so as an R&B star with a major record deal and millions of listeners and followers. I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of dissecting, but not talking about, the shift I almost expected would happen once I came out,” they say. I understood I wouldn’t be a part of certain conversations and that the categories I would be in would also maybe be different, and that I also wasn’t appealing to an audience that I was appealing to before.”

But writing music that coheres around their new identity has been revelatory. If you listened to my last album, there’s a lot of really hypersexual [stuff],” Kehlani says. I had to do a lot of work to understand why. Was I even talking about shit that I actually wanted to? We cannot ignore the fact that there is a pressure to have that sex symbol growth in your career, especially in R&B.”

Kehlani has also been enjoying the relief that came with the removal of their breast implants, which were causing chronic fatigue and depressive episodes that they link to breast implant illness. Kehlani says the difference has been a 180.”

I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” they say. They saw countless doctors, tried elimination diets and did every test you could possibly do.”

I should have known,” Kehlani continues, because my body was actually rejecting the implants. They would shift. They would move and detach from my muscles.” When the inserts were finally removed, it was instantaneous. All of a sudden, I can stay awake; all of a sudden, the body pain is gone completely.”

Kehlani says the experience has likely made them swear off cosmetic surgery moving forward. I don’t care what I start to look like,” they say. I don’t feel like science has caught up enough. And I’m not a person who hasn’t had things done. I’ve had things done. And I really want to emphasise [that] I hope people always do whatever the fuck they want to make them happy. But from experience, not just talking out of my ass, I wish that they had all the information.”

Together, these revelations about their sexuality and bodily autonomy have amounted to an intensely illuminating period for Kehlani. As they stare out off the pier, watching surfers bob in the water, they sound almost awestruck at how freeing the last few years have been.

The comfortability that comes with really understanding yourself – it’s just different,” they say. My walk is different, my presence is different. My feeling in my clothing is different. My performing is different, because I don’t feel like I’m playing a character; I don’t have to overly sexualise myself. When you’re not playing into a certain gaze, everything really does fucking change. I walk into a room full of men and I’m like, I don’t give a fuck what y’all think I look like right now.’”

Anyway, why would they care what men – or anyone – thinks of them? Kehlani’s laughing their way to the beach.

To me, I’ve accomplished almost every single goal I want to in life,” Kehlani says. I own a home in an area that I love. I’m taking care of my mother. I’m gonna be chilling by the time I’m 35. Like, I’m only 27?” they laugh, in disbelief at how things have turned out. I’m gonna be chilling!”

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