When she first visited SXSW, a lot of airy industry types mistook Kehlani for a rapper.
They were wrong.
They’d seen a sleeve of tattoos and a less conventionally feminine dress sense and probably assumed she was going to be spitting bars which they could all describe as “fierce” or “badass” or something on Twitter.
The only thing they accidentally got right in that clumsy assumption was that they were in the presence of a world-class lyricist. When putting together our cover story on Kehlani her lyrics kept striking us as one of her key weapons. If you aren’t already acquainted, here’s ten of the best.
Does it make you nervous I’m not afraid to say what I want? / Does it put fear in your heart that I know where I started, far from where I begun?
This interlude on You Should Be Here is a treasure chest of razor sharp lines that Lani pulls off effortlessly. To be honest, our advice would be to head over to the Genius page for it and take it all in but this one is a quick standout. Kehlani is an artist whose history is poured into everything she does regardless of how far she gets in her career. For some suiters, this determination might be an intimidating prospect.
I could see you watching let me take it there / Let me show you what it’s like, to fuck with something right / Girl let me put you on with something real / Wanna show you how it feels, to rock with something trill
1st Position is a standout track from Kehlani’s first lesser-known tape, Cloud 19. It’s a brilliantly carefree slow jam depicting the stages just before the lights go out. Lyrics this confident and self-assured on a debut tape don’t come around often and they flourish on this cut against the moonlit instrumental courtesy of experimental RnB don Swagg R’Celious. He’s also turned in great work for left field RnB figures like Dawn Richard.
You bitches riding on all my waves / But you bitches tired and underpaid / And shawty got zero percent on her publishing ‘cause she don’t write the shit she say
If you needed any indication as to where Kehlani hoping to take it in 2016, look no further than Did I — the gloves-off, thunderous single she dropped at the end of 2015. Loosely aimed at a friend who proved to be dishonest, Lani takes stock for a brief moment of flexing. A privilege you can afford when you’ve done things entirely your own way.
Every man wants a queen / Like Jada in her prime / 1990’s fine
The cultural references sprinkled throughout Kehlani’s catalogue are amazing. Besides a quick nod to talk show legend Ricki Lake on How That Taste, one of my favourites is this ode to Jada Pinkett Smith on this dreamy romantic joint from Cloud 19. If you are confused, spend a little while on Google images trawling through stills from Set It Off and you’ll understand why it’s a look worth celebrating.
And if you weren’t gonna guide me, why bring me into the light? / Must have done something to make you want to run and hide / Why oh why didn’t you just live your life? / And every girl needs a mother, and damn it I needed you
Perhaps Kehlani’s most sincere and heartbreaking song. The Letter is a confessional ballad about her relationship with her mother and the pain she’s felt over the years. The lyrics read like a snapshot of all the confusion and disorder that can come with familial breakdowns. With a quivering but sensational vocal, it’s the defining proof – if you needed it – that these songs are the realest.
So, baby, I’mma drive it like it’s stolen / I’mma fix it like it’s broken / We could catch a flight out to London / Go to the mall, spend a lump sum
This track recently reached 11 million views on YouTube. It’s probably Kehlani’s best known hit but that doesn’t mean you should brush over it. It’s a purring, teasing back-and-forth between Lani and Chance The Rapper which never quite reaches boiling point. This choice line about fixing, driving, flying and shopping is all part of the chase. There’s also this neat and characteristically slushy lyrical offering from Chance – “I gotta keep it a secret, I keep a key in my lower pocket / Inside a register below the lower octave”
He tells me he loves me he says mami te quiero / Papi’s a hustler chasing mucho dinero
This track was Kehlani’s first radio hit the US. It’s not hard to see why – like all radio charters, it’s pretty hard to get out of your head once you’ve heard it once. Lani channeled her Spanish heritage here for this channel-crossing tale of loyal romance. It sounds amazing. I wish I could get away with saying “mucho dinero” without sounding like David Brent.
How That Taste
They askin’ for the verse, a hundred racks / If you ain’t talkin’ money, then run it back
Remember that time Nicki Minaj told us she could charge $100k for a guest verse and she didn’t even have an album out? And we all felt a little terrified but totally enamoured with just how much power she had? This is one of those moments. Funnily enough, Kehlani’s recently been announced as one of the guests for the upcoming Zayn Malik solo record. He must have been talkin’ money.
Man you stay taking those pictures, pictures / Just to show them to your bitches, bitches / So you can make ’em jealous / So now I gotta dead this
Kehlani leaves it all on record. Beyond the music, she is a fairly private person. Her love life and relationships usually remain off of social networks. But – as you can imagine – being one of the fastest-rising arises on the planet makes the idea of your company appealing. Worse, it makes the reality of your company good fodder for online flexing. As Minnesota MC Lexii Alijai reaffirms on her guest verse, “Look, keep it real, cause every time we chill, all you wanna do is post a pic”.
Young woman reading magazines / Thinking to herself, nobody looks like me / Oh I’ve got all these curves, all this nerve / Why can’t I keep a man? / But baby girl if you love yourself you can
This record is maybe the most relevant to Kehlani’s demographic. Bright is a lyrical masterpiece – weaving together stories of kids who feel unhappy with the way look because of the unrealistic images of bodies they see around them. This song is a message of self-confidence preaching the timeless advice that step one is to love yourself. Another life lesson from a 20-year-old writer demonstrating just how far belief in oneself can get you.