Kehlani review, Blue Water Road: California artist returns with an album of warm, sensuous R&B

Kehlani in artwork for their new album (Bria Alysse)
Kehlani in artwork for their new album (Bria Alysse)

After the darkness of 2020’s It Was Good Until it Wasn’t comes the light of Blue Water Road. It’s an album that 27-year-old Kehlani Parrish describes as “a glass house... with the sun shining through it”. But that implies cold, manufactured right-angles, when the 13 songs on Blue Water Road roll out in warm, slow-rolling waves of sensuous R&B. It begins and ends with the sound of the ocean. Their conversational vocals bend through it like sunshine through the water.

In a short film about the album, shared on Twitter this week, Kehlani claimed that all pop artists fear happy music is at risk of “corniness”. They joked that only sad ballads can express true depth. But – after the soap opera of their “toxic” celebrity romances led to a suicide attempt – Kehlani believes that the joy and freedom they experience living as a queer single mother are the “deepest emotions” they’ve ever felt. They’ve clearly relished translating those feelings into music.

That’s not to say Blue Water Road is an expression of uncomplicated, Pharrellian “room without a roof” happiness. It’s more about the journey to joy. On opener “Little Story”, Kehlani addresses a lover with “a face that I could lie to” and makes the choice not to. Instead, against a sloshily strummed guitar, the singer who previously warned of their “cold habits” admits to “working on being softer”. Lower in the mix, a steel guitar echoes like whale song. There are chimes, and swirling, serious strings.

The mood lightens for one of the more standard, click-along R&B grooves on “Any Given Sunday”, to which LA rapper Blxst contributes some mellow, backseat vocals. But Kehlani has fun being assertive with lines such as “Call me Daddy in front of all your bitches in the lobby”. Later, they hook up with Justin Bieber for “Up At Night” (a pop hymn to obsessional love, driven by a tidy bass groove). Thundercat and Ambre join Kehlani for the sun-dazed musings of “Wondering/Wandering”.

But the best of these collaborations is with Canadian artist Jessie Reyez, on the irresistibly sleazy “More Than I Should”. Riding on a low, squelchy synth hook, the track is a cheater’s anthem on which Kehlani questions: “Is it really cheating if she ain’t loving me right/ If she’s not touchin’ me right?”

Kehlani opens their arms to the pure rush of pop on catchy single “Altar”, on which they take part in a ritual of true love. But this celebration shines more brightly for being offset by the album’s more brackish moments, including the tumbling percussion of “Tangerine”, and the arresting “Shooter Interlude”, a hat-tip to their hero, Jill Scott. “Can I borrow some money?/ My mumma needs surgery and my son needs a scooter/ I think you need Jesus/ I think you need a shooter.”

The album concludes with Kehlani looking out across the Californian surf with their daughter. It’s a sweet, strange moment – one that suggests they can see even more interesting ideas bobbing up on the horizon.