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Kehlani’s 2021 Mantra Is Love

Fresh from a year of personal growth, the singer says her new music is a reflection of the brightness she’s finding in her own life.

Kehlani photographed for Rolling Stone in Los Angeles, CA in January 2021 by Erica Hernandez. Hair by Cesar Deleon Ramirez for CrowdMGMT, Makeup by Patrick Ta for Patrick Ta Beauty; Styled by Scot Louie for The Wall Group

Erica Hernandez for Rolling Stone

One morning early this year, Kehlani decided to look up the tarot card she’d be aligning with in 2021. It’s a numerology practice: You add up your birthday with the year, then you add the digits of that new number. She got the number six, the placement of the lovers card in the tarot deck. “The lovers card is all about developing meaningful relationships, whether that be romantic or familial or community-based,” she says, calling from her new home in Simi Valley, California. “I really like that one. I’m on that path already.”

That path has at times been rocky for the singer. Born in Oakland, Kehlani Parrish’s upbringing was marred by drug addiction, which put her mom in prison, and gang violence, which took her dad’s life when she was young. Kehlani showed an early talent for performance, studying dance in school, and eventually singing. As a teenager, she joined a cover band called PopLife, which placed fourth on America’s Got Talent. The band didn’t make it very far, but after leaving the group, she started releasing music by herself through SoundCloud.

Kehlani’s first two mixtapes, 2014’s Cloud 19 and 2015’s You Should Be Here, established her as one of the leaders of a new class of singers who blurred the lines between pop, hip-hop, and R&B. She released her more pop-leaning debut album, SweetSexySavage, in 2017, but it was her 2019 mixtape While We Wait, written and recorded while pregnant with her daughter, Adeya, that would display the depths of her talents as a songwriter. Kehlani has a knack for giving coherence to the messiness that is dating and growing up in the public eye.

And that gift for making sense of chaos was about to be put to the test. Kehlani’s life after welcoming Adeya was a whirlwind of tragedy. She describes the beginning of last year as “heavy,” which feels generous. Within a three-month span, she lost two close friends — Philly rapper Chynna and Minnesota rapper Lexii Alijai — to overdoses. Meanwhile, her relationship with Compton rapper YG was going through a very public implosion. Kehlani channeled it all into last year’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, her best project yet, a provocative, self-reflective, and emotionally mature collection that had her unpacking all the death, heartbreak, and hard-earned lessons of her past 25 years. “I was in a crazy relationship,” she says. “I was in toxic situations. I was drinking a lot. There’s several mentions of tequila.”

I’m starting to get out of the mindset of ‘When are we getting back to normal?’ And more like, ‘This is our new normal.’

Kehlani stopped drinking over the summer, and now lives completely sober: “I’m very boring and grounded at the moment.” Releasing It Was Good turned out to be almost as challenging as the events that inspired it. The album was scheduled to come out last April, but lockdown measures delayed its release. In order to keep it from being indefinitely shelved, the singer took matters into her own hands, taking a DIY approach to the album’s visuals. The cover features the singer peering over the fence of her home while holding a hose; the video for “Can I” featured sex workers performing via webcam (and astutely ends with a written message from abolitionist activist Da’Shaun Harrison highlighting the increased difficulties for black sex workers). Still, the low-fi offerings weren’t quite what Kehlani had in mind. “I had plans to create this visual experience, and I didn’t get to,” she laments.

For her upcoming third album, she’s hoping things go differently. In September, Kehlani holed up in a Malibu Airbnb with friends and collaborators for a writing camp. She thought they were just making a few new tracks for the deluxe edition of It Was Good.

“We just made so much cool shit, and it was so different from what I would consider to be able to be on the deluxe because it didn’t sound anything like it,” she explains. “I just was like, ‘Fuck it, this is a whole new project.’”

Kehlani loved the camp so much that she named her upcoming third album after the street the Airbnb is on: Bluewater Road. After the bigger crew dispersed, she moved down the street, to a different spot, to write more. She then enlisted Andrew “Pop” Wansel to executive-produce the LP, having worked with him and his production partner, Warren “Oak” Felder (known together as Pop and Oak), on the majority of SweetSexySavage. With her new sobriety and perspective, she wanted to create something lighter than It Was Good, both for the sake of the world and herself.“Everything going on right now is heavy,” she begins. “Now, not only am I not in a heavy time, but I’m starting to get out of the mindset of ‘When are we getting back to normal?’ And more like, ‘This is our new normal.’ That’s a very privileged thing to say, being that I haven’t experienced a close loved one pass away or get the virus. I think people need some type of warmth, and I’m in the head space of centering positivity.”

While she waits, Kehlani is focusing on celebrating a more meaningful home: the large plot of land in Simi Valley she bought last summer. She has been planning how to best make use of the land for her and Adeya, looking into urban farming, even though the Santa Ana wind pocket has been busting out windows and blowing tiles from the roof. “My plan is to just have everybody come take part in it and come and grab things when they want,” she tells me, her tarot card proving to be true. “It [will] be a space for everybody to start with those dreams that they have.”

From Rolling Stone US