We’re here to tell you what’s hot and what’s not on this week’s music roundup
Kehlani – IT WAS GOOD UNTIL IT WASN’T
Favorite Tracks: “Water,” “Everybody Business,” “Serial Love,” “Open (Passionate),” “Can You Blame Me (featuring Lucky Daye),” “Can I (featuring Tory Lanez)”
IT WAS GOOD UNTIL IT WASN’T is Kehlani’s best project to date. The 25-year-old singer has had a lot of time to grow since her debut mixtape, CLOUD 19, was released in 2014, with much of her growing up done publicly; dispelled rumors of her own infidelity that nearly cost the singer her life, the loss of some of her best friends to drug overdoses, a failed relationship with rapper YG due to his cheating, the birth of her first child, Adeya… Kehlani has been through a lot, open and honest with her fan base every step of the way
That level of maturity and openness has developed both sonically and lyrically on her latest—Kehlani is “grown grown,” and IT WAS GOOD UNTIL IT WASN’T is too. The singer doesn’t shy away from discussing her sexuality on tracks like “Water” and “F&MU,” or some of those aforementioned relationships on “Toxic,” “Serial Lover,” and “Open (Passionate),” but it’s not too heavy-handed with dispelling the lessons she’s learned. Her songwriting is smart in that regard, and feels completely seamless. The genre debate in music is tired, but this album’s smooth yet rhythmic hi-hat-heavy production and Kehlani’s effortless voice are undeniably R&B, the kind of R&B that many people miss. The influence comes through in obvious ways, such as interpolating the chorus of Aaliyah’s “Come Over” into the Tory Lanez-assisted song “Can I,” but also in subtler ways, channeling a specific vulnerability and longing on songs like “Open (Passionate)” and “Change Your Life.” Fans these days seem to really connect with musicians who offer them a bit of transparency about their life and fans, too, seem to be pining for the truly romantic love-loving R&B of the past with albums that feature a smooth, low croon just as much as they do a good belt. Kehlani has struck gold by producing an album that is a delicate combination of the three—IT WAS GOOD UNTIL IT WASN’T isn’t all ballads, but she does her share of showing off a bit, even though she doesn’t need to. It should have been abundantly clear that she was an immense talent before this album, and it’s now especially clear that she’s one we should be continuing to be paying attention to. [Amanda Ball]
Yung Lean – STARZ
Genre: Cloud Rap, Ambient Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Boylife in EU,” “Outta My Head,” “Violence,” “Dance in the Dark,” “Hellraiser,” “Dogboy,” “Iceheart”
Towards the end of STARZ, on “Low,” Yung Lean states “Yeah, I’m only 23 but there’s, like, 10 of me.” Somehow, in an album more than strapped with moments worth chewing over, this ends up being one of the more staggering ideas, musical or otherwise. 23 is nothing, an absolute child; yet when you think back to, sigh, yes, the “Hurt” music video, just shy of its seventh birthday, it’s absolutely astounding to think just how long we’ve spent growing up with Yung Lean on the internet, even if the vast majority of those who stumbled across him found him a pop culture demon who needed to be exorcised. While there were, of course, embarrassing stumbles, pull quotes, and fashion choices along the way (ones that I’m sure Lean himself would be the first to put to the firing squad), it’s hard to deny just how much influence Lean’s severely inebriated inner circle ended up having. Two-and-a-half years removed from STRANGER, Lean’s “comeback” album that took an honest look at his drug-induced mental breakdown and recovery from the same, STARZ is yet another mature step forward away from the bucket hats of yore, an insular, haunting, fragile, and entirely daring feather in the cap.
A vast improvement upon the proof of concept given to us with 2018’s generally middling POISON IVY, Whitearmor deserves a whole heaping spoonful of credit here as executive producer: I realistically cannot think of a single other producer who would have the balls to effectively provide a litany of beats that sound like the melody lines were crafted by psychedelic synthmasters Emeralds. If any criticism is to be lobbied against STARZ, it’s that the increasingly tenuous ties to trap feel almost obligatory from a “beat” perspective; while the list of standout tracks still include some more “traditional” cuts (the quotation marks indicating just how mind-bending the concept of considering SoundCloud rap old hat is at this point), the album is absolutely at its best when it paradigm-shifts the possibilities of Yung Lean with a dreamy noise pop cut such as “Boylife in EU,” an easy contender for one of the top tracks of the year, full stop. Then again, Lean’s capabilities behind the mic shouldn’t be dismissed, especially with the Triad God-reminiscent production sensibilities on display; nobody else could so confidently deliver the hypnotically sputtering stop-start rhythm of his flow on “Hellraiser.” On STARZ, Lean mostly raps in the same sense that Charli XCX or, Hell, even Laura Les do these days; the delivery style technically applies, but it’s in the service of the larger impact of a surprising diversity of genre influences operating in the background as opposed to vetted merit in its own right. The diversity of genre influences in question contain everything from industrial overtones on opener “My Agenda” to hypnagogic pop on “Starz,” which appropriately features Ariel Pink, to the general queasy abrasiveness of witch house mixing.
But, in a nod to the aforementioned Miss XCX, STARZ feels like another album intimately tied to the concept of self-isolation that quarantine has put on all of our minds. Lean ostensibly only has Whitearmor as his creative muse these days, Yung Sherman receiving a minor production credit and Yung Gud but a distant memory. This has seemingly allowed for an intensified period of looking inward, Lean willing to acknowledge the loneliness, emptiness of fame, and encroaching mortality his career has brought him (“You don’t need your friends, you don’t need yourself / I don’t need no wealth,” “Dancer in the dark, no heart, just sparks,” “I sold my soul when I was very young / I’m so gone”). Look, at the end of the day, I’ll admit it: this was an album that took me slightly larger than a handful of listens to fully unlock. And I understand that many will not be willing to give it that privilege (if we’re being honest and you’re a first-time caller, just start at “Boylife in EU”). But even during the two times I relistened to STARZ while writing this, I found new elements to appreciate. Nothing I’ll ever write will convince you to listen to Yung Lean based on your a priori conceptions of him. But while the media cycle was not wrong to critique what he brought to the table as a 16-year-old, the obvious work he’s done on himself and his art continues to impress me. Yung Lean is 23. Think of what in the fuck he’ll be making in another seven years when comparing STARZ to UNKNOWN DEATH 2002. [Thomas Seraydarian]