Kehlani Explores Relationship Dynamics With Bravado and Verve on ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’

Kehlani rose to prominence without any record label tomfoolery, simply a mixtape that drew critical acclaim, a Grammy nomination, and international recognition. She followed her 2017 debut album, “SweetSexySavage,” with last year’s “While We Wait,” a release hyper-focused on relationship issues, and saturated with assertive attitude. The release found her settling into a sound of her own, with emergent proclivities falling into patterns, and she now builds further on that basis with “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t.” The striking title comes with cover art depicting Kehlani on a pleasant summer day, with short shorts and a garden hose, peering over a fence. The back cover, meanwhile, bears a picture taken from the opposite direction, in which we look Kehlani directly in the face, and find her standing somewhat aghast, surrounded by rubble and destruction. With the surreal situation that is Covid-19, it’s an appropriate idea for the times, but its relevance to the album’s content is tenuous. It appears a relationship went sour, which, in turn, gave rise to a new set of songs on essentially the same old subjects. At any rate, the album finds Kehlani up to her usual, backed by some illustrious guests, and sounding as natural as always. 

Opener “Toxic” appears the latest installment in Kehlani’s split with rapper YG, whom she previously addressed, after tabloid accusations, in the patient but critical “You Know Wassup,” and then the farewell bid “Valentine’s Day (Shameful.)” Now, Kehlani bemoans the toxic nature of the relationship, singing with plenty of laid back swag, in sinuous, boldly curved melodies, with Ty Dolla $ign on backing vocals, over a droney, monotonous backdrop, effectively setting the mood. “Can I” brings some ‘90s throwback flavor, and takes the form of a basic slow jam, with classic suggestive lyrics, as if a test of how much melismatic embellishment can be gratuitously piled around a vague phrase. Tory Lanez, fresh from the hard hip-hop reclamation of is recent “The New Toronto 3,” reverts back to smooth R&B mode, and demonstrates a natural chemistry with Kehlani, who pays homage to Aaliyah, interpolating the chorus of her 2002 posthumous track, “Come Over.”

“Bad News” a typical transformation track, about the fantasy of remaking a bad boy, is a more tender number, somewhere between Disney fantasy and soul swag. “Red Hot Girl” is a brief skit featuring Megan Thee Stallion bragging about her skills in bed. The brief mood piece “Water” picks up on her implications, and channels astrology into seduction in an especially infectious track, effortlessly catchy upon first listen. “Change Your Life” brings a promising collaboration with another R&B star of the moment, Jhené Aiko, Aiko’s vocals are more gently spread and rounded, while Kehlani’s more spiked and dynamic, and a cowbell works wonders, as they trade duties, building on all the sappy and steamy momentum of the aforementioned tracks. Kehlani nods to Megan’s expressed bravado a few tracks earlier with another skit, “Belong to the Street,” that captures peers discussing how she has “always got a different nigga.”

A reverb-soaked recording gives a retro touch to the acoustic guitar-based “Everybody Business,” which borrows the chorus melody of Pharrell WIlliams “Frontin’,” merely spacing out and slightly varying its lines to an effect less catchy than the original. Kehlani keeps the titular word intact, as if in attempt to frame the gesture as more of a tribute, but it comes across as an underwhelming steal. Thematically, however, the song does gel with the rest on display, with “frontin’,” or “projecting,” as Kahlani herself has articulately translated, adding to the list of grievances. “Hate the Club,” featuring Masego, a song about mustering the courage to go up and start a conversation, is a bit of fun, with smooth jazz sax, out of all things, thrown in. Moreover, one has to appreciate the creativity of rhyming “hate the club” with drink enough,” — “drink” pronounced “dray-nk,” so that the vowel sounds match up. “Serial Lover” brings an airtight package of hi-hat heavy beats and classic R&B gloss, as Kehlani continues to flip the script, reframing commitment issues as bragging rights, and singing lines like “got girls I wanna give my last name.” Then comes “F&MU,” a sinuous celebration of make up sex, full of wah-wah funk and clipped, sultry singing.

Kehlani explores the struggle between desire and pride on “Can You Blame Me,” enlisting singer Lucky Daye, who keeps up with her, bending and contorting his notes into the same elastic forms. It comes across as if she’s leading the way and he’s following, not to mention that his contribution is a few scant lines. “Grieving,” featuring James Blake, clears the clutter to a more old school drum track and intricate piano sample. The moment Blake’s magnetic voice enters the mix, this track is in a league of its own, and while it’s another feature of just a few lines, there’s substance enough in those. Blake and Kehlani riff off the hues of a symbiotic relationship, building on themes introduced on the opening track. On “Open (Passionate.)” the beat gets more old school yet, with some definite mid ‘90s flavor, and Kehlani settles into a tight groove, before a midsong beat change brings the Spanish guitar backing that was such a trend in early aughts R&B. Over this backdrop, she muses about baring herself and figuring out how open is too open. Finally, “Lexii’s Outro,” ends with late Minnesota-based rapper Lexii Alijai rapping with plenty attitude about grit and persistence, ending, “You gotta act like you’re on top, even if your shit sunk.” In light of the album’s cover art, and the relationship drama that fills the song, this brings things to closure on a positive note. 

“It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” delivers everything you’d expect in a release from a major R&B talent right now. There are slow jams with risque lyrics and gratuitous imagery, with more innocent moments interspersed. There are throwaway cameos, interpolations of classic songs, and short skits based on inside jokes. Moderated blasts to the past resurrect ‘90s and ‘00 sounds and combine them with all the standard equipment of the day. Kehlani has an excess of attitude and a gift for melisma, both on full display. In terms of style and subject matter, there’s little to stop you in your tracks, but there’s material to check all the main boxes.

It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” is available May 8 on Apple Music.