Kehlani, And R&B’s Women Of Color, Struggle To Be Heard In Pop Market

Kehlani Parrish’s music isn’t meant to be a secret.

The singer, who was raised in Oakland and currently lives in Los Angeles, makes a winning sweet-and-sour blend of contemporary R&B. She can strike a confident yet self-aware pose. On her single “CRZY,” she boasts, “If I gotta be a b—- I’ma be a bad one,” then adds, “I kill ’em, I kill ’em, I kill ’em with compassion.” Her music hearkens to the honeyed melodies typical of ’90s stars like SWV and TLC, homage-paying references to past hits like New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love” and Akon’s “Don’t Matter,” and the ecstatic flights of melisma that suggest unfettered joy. Kehlani is a capable and surprisingly strong singer, too, though she often sticks to a strident middle range. When she professes her love, she tends to look for a roundabout way to do it. When she asks, “Do you want to be a distraction, baby?” on “Distraction,” her seduction doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue. But it’s appealing all the same.

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Kehlani, SweetSexySavageCourtesy of the artist

Yet months after the January release of her retail debut SweetSexySavage, Kehlani has evolved into a critic’s darling who can’t quite breach pop radio. Sean “Puffy” Combs has said that Kehlani “saved R&B.” When Solange accepted the Centric Award at the 2017 BET Music Awards, she shouted out the new wave of women in R&B. “I love Syd, and Kehlani, and SZA, and Kelela and all the new-school girls who are out here,” she said.

However, none of Kehlani’s singles have cracked the Billboard top 40 so far. “Gangsta,” a trap-inflected number where she channels Harley Quinn from last year’s Suicide Squad, came closest, earning a RIAA platinum certification yet paradoxically stalling at No. 41.

The moderate success of SweetSexySavage has reignited conversations about whether the music industry is devaluing R&B artists and, specifically, talented women of color. Kehlani’s not alone: Sevyn Streeter, SZA and Mary J. Blige have also released superior major-label projects this year, only to find a muted reception on the pop charts.

The irony is that, as a genre, R&B has never been healthier. It teems with variety, whether it’s the neon-hazed, synthesized romance of H.E.R., the sun-dappled hip-hop funk of Anderson .Paak, the gauzy teenage fantasies of Khalid, or the airy, baroque star-gazing of Chloe x Halle. No longer limited to the binary debate between “jiggy” urban pop and earthy neo-soul that dominated at the dawn of the millennium, today’s R&B world is as diverse as any other.

However, it seems like it’s the women who are truly expanding the genre’s vocabulary. Many of them have evolved into musical diarists. No longer limiting themselves to the endless tumult of love and sexual relationships, they write about their fears with disarming vulnerability. You can hear that inner voice take hold on Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage. On “Piece of Mind,” she bravely discusses a highly-publicized suicide attempt, which she has said was triggered by trolling over her complicated love life. “Trying to forget all of the unnecessary thoughts from my head / Man it was pretty scary,” she sings. “At least I learned a thing or two / About me and you / What we went through.”

Aected Solána “SZA” Rowe, the singer from New Jersey whose abstract, unclassifiable R&B initially seemed too non-commercial for mainstream consumption. Three years after her mixtape caused a sensation in 2013, she publicly expressed frustration with her record label, TDE, which is best known for introducing West Coast rap lyricists like Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q. “I actually quit,” she wrote on Twitter, upset that TDE wouldn’t release her debut album. (She later clarifiedit was her, not TDE, that caused her debut album’s long delay. Eventually, she told The Guardian, “They just took my hard drive from me.”)

Ctrl debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts upon its June 9 release speaks to how even an idiosyncratic, experimental artist like SZA can reach beyond the tastemakers who initially championed her. (It also doesn’t hurt that she’s signed to one of the hottest boutique record companies in the industry right now.) Major labels and radio executives may be hesitant to back this new wave of fearlessly adventurous R&B women — from the metaphysical love songs of SZA to the ’90s homage of Kehlani — with the promotional resources they deserve. But they seem to be finding an audience anyway, whether the pop market acknowledges them or not.