Barry Walters
April 25, 2017 at 07:54 AM EDT

We gave it a B

Remember the crazy/sexy/cool-ness of around-the-way ‘90s singers like Brandy, Aaliyah, and, of course, TLC? Well, Kehlani sure does. From the title of her official debut album to its breezy downtempo grooves, this 21-year-old America’s Got Talent graduate recreates the sounds and spirits that got her through a tough Oakland childhood. Not content to serve up mere nostalgia, Kehlani takes the cadences and beats of classics like “The Boy Is Mine” or “Creep,” adds up-to-the-minute production tricks, and filters it all through the consciousness of a sensitive woman forced to grow up too soon, one who survived a suicide attempt last year while struggling with depression.

Everything special about Kehlani is crammed into SweetSexySavage’s first tune, “Keep On.” Alternating handclaps and finger snaps over a strutting funk bassline, she spreads her bruised alto through a sashaying ode to a mate who forgives and gives love freely. She doesn’t mince words, particularly when summing up her shortcomings: “I ain’t do the s— that I shoulda did,” Kehlani admits with an adult awareness that adds depth to the youthfulness of her style. If this had been released back in Brandy’s heyday when the internet was just beginning to become a thing, Kehlani would be blowing it up.

Instead she’s competing with a political apocalypse and a million other distractions, and so she spreads herself a little too thin over SSS’s 17 songs (19 on the deluxe, which includes her Suicide Squad hit “Gangsta”). The melodies of trap-influenced cuts like “Personal” aren’t always as substantial as her observant lyrics, and she sometimes coasts on a singsong, nearly spoken flow that squanders the expressivity of her understated but resonant pipes. Yet haunting highlights like “Piece of Mind” and “Everything Is Yours” prove that beneath SSS’s padding, there’s a succinct, sassy, and sincere album waiting to be slimmed down to Kehlani’s own soul-searching essence.

Key Tracks
“Keep On”
In the wake of last year’s personal struggles, the singer turns the album’s opening love song into a victory dance of the heart.

“Everything Is Yours”
Juxtaposing traditional R&B balladry against Pop & Oak’s emphatically electronic hum and rattle, Kehlani calmly croons while twisting syncopations sputter around her.

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