Kehlani Parrish is very good at what she does: hazy, deceptively ethereal R&B tracks from which hooks bubble up as clear and plentiful as raindrops on glass. At her best, like 2016’s “Distraction,” there’s virtually no space between them, sounding like one continuous, flowing chorus. Yet no matter how overlush the arrangement, her voice always pierces through: high, poignant, and disarmingly frank. Everything she sings comes off a little like a conspiratorial secret, one she’s bursting with excitement to share.
Her new mixtape, While We Wait, recorded during her recent pregnancy, is half the length of 2017’s SweetSexySavage and twice as wistful, as if delivered through a sigh. At first, the tape appears more conversant with the past couple decades’ neo-soul and quiet storm than this generation’s brash, fewer-fucks-given crossover R&B. This is likely not an accident. Kehlani, like many women in modern R&B, has struggled to break into both urban and Top 40 radio despite excellent, poised solo material. Her solution has been two-pronged. In the years since SweetSexySavage, Kehlani’s kept her voice on radio via guest verses on singles by Cardi B, Charlie Puth, and others. She’s also often the best part of those singles, particularly when you get down the list into wait-whos like KYLE. (It may be worth noting that all three of those artists share the same label, Atlantic, as Kehlani.)
Her own work, meanwhile, is more languid and relaxed, less a bid for airplay than for her fans’ quietest hours. The lyrics dwell in what Briana Younger, in The New Yorker, called a “perpetual state of indecision and emotional disrepair … captivating in part because there [are] no neat conclusions,” and the music does likewise. If SweetSexySavage clung to its TLC predecessor just a tad too tightly, deployed its ‘90s R&B samples a bit insistently, While We Wait has different aims. It’s the sort of album you’d spin out of the lyric, “I’m a fountain of youth, raised on [India.]Arie and [Erykah] Badu,” as Kehlani sings on “Morning Glory.”
That said, the millennial R&B callbacks haven’t gone away. “Feels” evokes Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent,” and the percussion track to “Footprints” is practically Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs—it could be pasted atop “Bills, Bills, Bills” with little hitch. The hooks remain sparkling, with by far the sparkliest being “Morning Glory”: a riff on “if you can’t handle me at my…” with lyrics just short of cutesy (“I may look like oh me, oh my”). But it’s cheerfully executed, with unexpected details—a little percussion skip here, a Kehlani rap verse there. It’s also by far the album’s best rap verse; While We Wait has more features than the nearly all-Kehlani SweetSexySavage, but the guests acquit themselves best when they’re subsumed into the mood, like neo-soul throwback Musiq Soulchild and a relatively chill Ty Dolla $ign.
Where the ballads on SweetSexySavage were very period-accurate—in that they were often filler—on While We Wait they’re the standouts. Kehlani’s voice sounds soaked in pain on single “Nights Like This,” a plaint to an ex-girlfriend. (The subject, too, is clearly an ex-girlfriend, the pronouns most specific on the album’s most prominent song. “I’ve been making music about women my whole career, but I never felt the need to write ‘she,’ necessarily,” Kehlani told Fader last year. “But now I’ve seen how people reacted to my song “Honey,” or when I’ve used the correct pronouns and put women in my music videos. … I’m more aware that this isn’t just my truth.”) By far the highlight is lead track “Footprints,” compared (deservedly) by Pitchfork to Joni Mitchell. From the intro’s running-water sample (echoed in her lyric: “holding water, slips right through your fingers”) to the fluting, unresolved melody, it sounds almost ephemeral. Like Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky,” already a 2010s standout, it’s the sort of mood that could suspend itself over a day or month or year. And as a musical statement, it’s Kehlani casually, unhurriedly, staking her spot in that next year, or more.