Kehlani and Syd Look Back to Nineties R&B to Show How Expansive the Genre Can Be


The primacy of r&b isn’t theoretical. Two weeks ago, after Adele, and not Beyoncé, won the Grammy for Album of the Year — and Song of the Year and Record of the Year — she lugged her awards backstage and said to reporters, “I thought it was her year. What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” After this, Adele snapped the horn off her flimsy gramophone and gave it to Beyoncé. It wasn’t the real award, so you can check up to see if this gesture holds once Adele receives the genuine article in the mail.

Beyoncé may not have something to do with every record released in the world, but people don’t think of her as “the sun” just because they love her. She is not an isolated marvel — Beyoncé draws from a community that revolves around her and bears fruit all year long. R&B is as generously vague and fertile as it’s ever been. The genre has accommodated fluid sexuality more comfortably than pop, offered hybrid visionaries a historical tradition to push against, and maintained a consistent level of surprise ever since 1949, when music of black origin was first wrangled into the ungainly folder labeled r&b (after being called many other things). Which walls did Frank Ocean warp? Which body of work did FKA Twigs dive-bomb? And how would you classify Syd’s Fin and Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage? They draw from more than one source but signify as extensions of a musical continuum that is rich enough to feed its own and, yes, Adele: r&b.

Kehlani Parrish, originally from Oakland, functions like an r&b index. SweetSexySavage is her second album, and first on a major label, following a self-released EP and full-length. Kehlani has Beyoncé’s tendency toward both ambition and omnivorous curiosity, writing on almost every track while drawing in a variety of collaborators. Her register isn’t regal — she’s lithe and practical. The title of her new album is a clear reference to TLC’s CrazySexyCool, and she gravitates toward a spring-heeled bounce. Her lyrics don’t try to parse relationships. She’s either on her way or on her way out; going deep into the building isn’t part of the project.

The low-stress chorus of “Distraction” — “Are you down to be a distraction, baby? But don’t distract me” — matches airy, multi-tracked vocals that recall Nineties trios like SWV and TLC. “Piece of Mind” takes the bargain further, going hard into the physical glow of voices while asking politely to ditch any analysis: “I think sometimes the best things are in the unplanned and the unknown/And sometimes when we balance back and we do it/We don’t know how we did it, we just do it.”

One of the most accomplished practitioners of the deceptively elegant was Aaliyah, whose work has come back on the wind. She kept her voice firmly soft while never ceding any emotional ground, rising above us all. Kehlani’s “Too Much” makes this link explicit, sampling Timbaland’s drums from Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman” and modeling the phrasing of “too much of a woman” on the chorus of the 2001 song.

Kehlani is too exuberant to channel the rest of Aaliyah’s emotional timbre: the detachment, the love of strangeness, the muted anxiety. For that, Syd’s Fin is perhaps the finest update of the original formula. Syd, originally of the Odd Future collective and the band The Internet, has leapt ahead of most around her. Distractingly, she’s referred to Fin as an interim project, a “pop” album that she’s co-produced with biz pros like Hit-Boy. It doesn’t have the emotional impact of a provisional statement — it hits hard.

Where Kehlani samples Aaliyah, Syd drops hints. The bed of “Know,” produced by Nick Green, is an open tribute to Timbaland’s production: hiccups, thumps, and syncopated filaments. Syd flips Aaliyah’s 1996 single “If Your Girl Only Knew” in the chorus: “Don’t let nobody know/Let’s keep it on the low/And as long as he don’t/Long as she don’t/We’ll lay back and play the game.” As an openly gay artist, Syd can do things with pronouns that Aaliyah didn’t, while channeling that same sense of tensile strength underpinning Aaliyah’s songs.

The current political climate — essentially American history dialed up by ten decibels — hasn’t yet brought out as much defiant r&b as plangent songs that stick to their demands. To nurture others is a running theme, perhaps because social media has made yelling at people so easy, and so obviously pointless. Calling a work of art “touching” has long sounded like faint praise, or a creepy euphemism. Now touching, in any of its formations, is a complex political act. For Kehlani and Syd, Aaliyah is a solid reference point for how you can become light enough to float into someone else’s life.