Kehlani’s ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’ is Smooth and Clever R&B

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Originally written and published by me for Spectrum Culture.

When R&B star Kehlani first appeared as a contestant on the sixth season of America’s Got Talent, as part of the teen pop group PopLyfe, judge Piers Morgan famously told her, “You’ve got real talent, but I don’t think you need the group.” From his mouth to her ears, she left shortly after appearing on the reality competition series to launch a solo career. Two critically lauded mixtapes followed in 2014 and 2015, Cloud 19 and You Should Be Here, leading up to the release of her first studio album—SweetSexySavage—in 2017, which established her as the latest face of pop-infused R&B. She made soundtrack appearances and guest features including “Let Me Live” from Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time and “Good Thing” with Zedd. But after dipping her toes into the world of fast-paced pop, Kehlani takes a step forward with her new record It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, an album of sophisticated and clever R&B.

Kehlani has had her fair share of public and personal upheavals, and you can hear it on her new album. In 2016, she attempted suicide after fans on social media accused her of cheating on her ex-boyfriend, NBA point guard Kyrie Irving. In the years following, the singer came out as queer and pansexual, and in 2019 gave birth to a child, opening up about her battle with prenatal depression. Most recently she was dating rapper YG, but the relationship ended when a video of him cheating went viral. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, which many have already referred to as something of a pansexual soap opera, address many of these messy incidents and the feelings that have gone along with them—to varying degrees of success.

The album opens with “Toxic,” a smooth tune that ultimately establishes the theme for what’s to come: “All of this love is toxic / All these kisses and hugs ain’t shit / You a damn drug, you’re toxic.” The record is full of different sounds, but the one that stands out the most is Kehlani growing up and coming into her own as a musician and songwriter. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is full of heavy emotions, but the singer’s raw lyrics and distinct vocal ability make for breezy, easy-listening R&B, reminiscent of SZA’s Ctrl or Rihanna’s ANTI. It’s certainly a departure from the glitzy, hooky production that dragged on SweetSexySavage, but where her first album might have lacked compelling, personal lyrics, it made up for it with catchy melodies and inescapable earworms.

Other highlights include the Jhené Aiko collaboration “Change Your Life,” a track about two lovers contemplating how they might complete each other: “I’m not saying that you incomplete, but / Just imagine what we’d be if we became one / You deserve someone that’ll take you to another level / Let me put you on.” However, the album reaches its peak with “Everybody Business,” a subtle but effective nod to Kehlani’s personal scandals that always seem to become public. “I hear every word they talk / Try not to care at all,” she sings. “I know it’s frontin’, don’t know me from nothin’ / Still learning to shake it off.”

She continues the sentiment about how much she, like Kelsea Ballerini, does not like the club on “Hate the Club,” featuring Masego: “Damn, you know I hate the club / But I came ‘cause I knew you’d show up / Maybe if I drank enough / I’ll make my way over to ya.” The social media age of cancel culture has made it incredibly difficult for public figures to be able to learn from their mistakes and champion growth, let alone escape constant criticism—but young stars like Halsey and most certainly Kehlani have taken the time to remind us that they, just like everybody else, are still learning, and that’s going to have to be enough for right now.

Rating: 7/10

Jeffrey’s favorites from It Was Good Until Wasn’t: “Toxic,” “Change Your Life,” “Everybody Business,” “Hate the Club,” “Serial Lover,” and “F&MU”