Kehlani’s New Album ‘Crash’ Is an Explosion of Queer Sensuality

The last few months have been busy for Kehlani. Between speaking out against the genocide in Palestine, releasing two new videos (one of which centers their recent activism), and working on an album, it was hard to know exactly what to expect of their new album, Crash. A few days before the release, they teased on social media that their new music would go in new directions, and that the moment they decided to “embrace” the fact that they don’t “fit a mould” was the moment they started having “the most fun.”

As we’ve seen with a lot of pop, R&B, and adjacent acts over the last couple of years, many artists are experimenting with sounds that aren’t part of their normal repertoire. The R&B sphere has been particularly interesting, with artists like Kelela, Tinashe, Victoria Monét, and Amaarae challenging the conventional notions of what R&B is and where it can go. It would be hard to compare this moment with any other, but it has certainly reminded me of some of the risks R&B acts were taking in the late 90s and early aughts. We’re not seeing them achieve the same mainstream success necessarily but the music’s been good. Better than good, actually. It’s been thoughtful in its references, intricate in its production, and unafraid of going in directions that might seem odd or offbeat. Needless to say, I was hoping after seeing Kehlani’s updates about Crash — especially after their last two releases, blue water road and It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, seem to toe the line between what they wanted and what others expected of them a little too closely to the latter — that they’d created something truly outside the “mould” they were waiting to escape.

And Crash delivers in ways I don’t think a lot of people will expect. On Crash, we get all of the emotional and sexual honesty we’ve come to expect from Kehlani, and that intimacy extends outwards to the composition of the tracks. Kehlani and their producers strip down what we know of R&B to its most important components, giving us 13 tracks that definitely vary in their effectiveness but almost all present an intriguing vision of how to blur boundaries between genres while still staying true to R&B foundations that inform the album’s production.

The album sets the scene with “GrooveTheory,” a kind of tribute to the mid-90s neo soul group of the same name. It starts with an understated and hazy arrangement that’s reminiscent of early girl-group ballads with repetitious backing vocals and a saccharine-voiced Kehlani singing, “I’m not the one / And I’m kind of crazy.” Then, a little less than halfway through the track, the “station” changes (literally, it sounds like someone is messing with a radio dial), and we’re taken somewhere entirely new. The ballad switches to a sultry, bass-heavy electronic beat and Kehlani’s voice changes entirely. Now, they’re trying to turn you on: “Come talk with me / Wanna get you open / Now that you’re free.” It’s a delicate balance between sensuality in the form of late night sex and dance floor seduction and sensuality in the form of breaking themself open in front of the person they want to be with. And that balance informs the rest of the album.

Crash’s singles, “Next 2 U” and “After Hours,” immediately follow the opening track, with both separately representing the governing mood of it. “Next 2 U” begins with the deep, reverberating sounds of an electric guitar and bursts into a bevy of gleaming, 80s R&B-inspired synths and a slowly pulsating clap-like bassline as Kehlani promises “They gon’, they gon’ have to call the law / I don’t care what they offer, I’m protecting you.” With little transition in between, “After Hours” comes on quickly with its “Coolie Dance Rhythm” sample setting the foundation for a truly exhilarating pop track that would most definitely be a suitable choice for Song of the Summer, if we were still doing that kind of thing. Like the back end of “GrooveTheory,” “After Hours” is dripping with sexual desire — “I wanna feel the sweat breathin’ through your clothes / The way you touch my neck got me ready to fold” — and the hope that the person it’s addressing will spend the night.

“After Hours” pushes us directly into some of the boldest, raunchiest tracks on the album (and maybe of Kehlani’s career so far) with a couple of ballads interrupting and bookending the naughtiness of them. “What I Want” layers a hip hop bassline and background hype exclamations over the hook of Christina Aguilera’s “What A Girl Wants” as Kehlani demands in cadence between rapping and singing, “I want a bitch that look better than me / Pussy get wetter than me.” Meanwhile, “Sucia” employs some alluring spoken word from Jill Scott at the top of the track as the sound of snakes slithers in the background, then the track evolves into a well of sensuous and slow-moving synth melodies and basslines. Here, Kehlani isn’t making any demands. They’re just confident as hell. This time, they tell their lover, “Follow any instructions of your body / I bottlе that shit up, pour in a sip / Girl, you should taste the water from your well.” “8” is equally horny but changes the formula a little. The composition is upbeat and smooth, putting that late 90s R&B that undergirds so many of the tracks on the album in the foreground. On “8,” they’re not trying to seduce in the same way as the other two tracks. Instead, they’re the one trying to get broken off this time around: “I’m in the mood, you know what to do / Treat this like some food / Ten minus two with you / Ain’t the point of cake, just to eat it too / I’m tryna get ate.”

The two songs that stud these tracks — the title track “Crash” and “Better Not” — are country-rock influenced guitar-forward ballads that would feel out of place on this record in someone else’s hands, but Kehlani makes it work. Although some of the other work from artists employing the “Yeehaw Agenda” on their recent albums feels a bit contrived, the songwriting and composition feels in line with a lot of the work Kehlani did on their previous two albums. They don’t share the same explosive energy of much of the rest of the album, but they’re a great illustration of that balance Kehlani put forward through “GrooveTheory.” They’re demonstrating how that balance feels in real life: Some days are lust-filled and sexually adventurous. On others, they’re longing for something more, something closer to the comfort of being in the arms of the person they love most in the world.

Acid house and Afrobeats-rhythms-inspired “Tears” and 80s-synth-heavy “Vegas” follow “Better Not” and are some of the most interestingly arranged tracks on the album. “Tears” is just begging to be played at the peak of a queer dance night with its repetitive bass syncopation and layered vocals, particularly when the chorus of the track bursts on. The synths and deep, popping bassline on “Vegas” have the makings of being the best track on the score of some indie-romance. On it, Kehlani sings in the chorus, “And while the world is on fire / We’re getting high, making love,” a lyric that underscores how most of us are living right now by trying to eke out moments of ecstatic joy in the midst of dystopia. These tracks are less overtly erotic than other tracks on Crash, but they still exude a similar sensuality while also never losing sight of the tension between love and lust that underpins everything Kehlani is doing on Crash.

The album closes with “Lose My Wife,” a track with a folk rhythm that feels straight out of the 90s neo-soul alternative section, and brings back some of the persona Kehlani’s made their name on over the years. On this track, they’re a little naughty and flirtatious but still trying to keep the person they love from leaving them. Over a bumping, muted guitar, Kehlani sings, “I’ve been wildin’ out tonight / So when I get home / I give you what you want.” It’s a perfect encapsulation and perfect closing for an album that navigates so much of the emotional turmoil Kehlani — and many of us — are experiencing in this current moment, stuck between global tragedy after global failure and trying to live our lives the way we think they should be lived. Kehlani has never been afraid to lay it all on the line in their music, but Crash is representative of a new kind of swagger — one that reminds us of where they came from, how talented they are, and how much further they have to go.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 95 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. This is my favorite release of the year! Been a kehlani fan since Cloud 19 the doll dun been through some thangs. It feels like they have finally made it to the other side and I love that for them! Definitely feels like a culmination of their major releases. Can’t wait to see them on tour!

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