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There’s a simple but powerful promise in “Little Story,” the orchestral epic that opens Kehlani’s new album, “Blue Water Road” — one that captures what it feels like to spend a lifetime chasing safe, tender intimacy in partnership: “Working on being softer/’Cause you are a dream, to me.”

The phrase evokes one of the foundations of Kehlani’s music: a commitment to openness and fearless vulnerability in the face of romantic turmoil. Kehlani, who uses she/they pronouns, has always been confessional, a quality that has resonated with a generation of pop and R&B fans and that can be felt on the singer’s last two albums (and mixtapes). This time around, the insecurities of love and heartbreak are still there, but there’s a newfound awareness — an emotional clarity that illuminates how healing isn’t always linear.

All this wisdom didn’t just materialize out of thin air. In the past two years, Kehlani has experienced several life-altering shifts: settling into motherhood; losing two close friends to drug overdoses; enduring a brutal public breakup with the rapper YG; and coming out as a lesbian and as nonbinary. Many of these themes appeared on the 2020 album “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t,” and some of them are reprised here, but that project was cloudy and macabre, driven by sparse, hollow beats and a somber outlook on the prospect of building healthy love.

“Blue Water Road” instead radiates delicate warmth. In a creamy, full-throated voice, Kehlani exudes a tenderness not felt since their 2017 studio album, “SweetSexySavage.” There’s still a reverence for the past: “Up at Night,” featuring Justin Bieber, interpolates Soul II Soul and Rose Windross’s 1989 track “Fairplay,” while “Wish I Never” warps the drums of Slick Rick’s classic “Children’s Story.” But there’s a fresh, imagistic aura to the production on “Blue Water Road,” rendered in part by the executive producer Andrew “Pop” Wansel. Nearly every song includes hushed acoustic guitar textures, or swelling string crescendos that revel in high drama. Echoes of wind, cresting waves and bird calls are sprinkled throughout, sketching an aural landscape that is plush and comforting, like the caress of a lover who’s been gone for too long.

This is the ideal backdrop for Kehlani’s diaristic, bleeding-heart lyricism. “Little Story” harnesses a novelistic metaphor to chronicle a romance that never fully bloomed: “I want you to pick up the pen/And write me into your story,” Kehlani sings. The lead single “Altar” is a gorgeous elegy for friends lost to addiction, and the ancestors who have offered Kehlani spiritual grounding. But rather than becoming immersed in sorrow, Kehlani salutes the dearly departed with a small act of service, and reminds us their memories will never really fade: “If I set a flame and I call your name/I’ll fix you a plate, we can go to dinner/We can share a meal your way/And I’ll play the songs that you used to play.”

But it’s Kehlani’s candid ruminations on queer desire and estrangement that resonate the deepest here. On the breathy slow burner “Get Me Started,” Kehlani and the R&B artist Syd lament a disconnection that threatens to end a relationship: “You need something else/Well, maybe she can do it better.” On the velvety serenade “Melt,” Kehlani cherishes the small, perfect joy of finding a home in a lover: “Wish I could build me a cute apartment/One bedroom right where your heart is.” It’s sensual but loving, capturing both the devoted affection and the erotic pleasure that make a partnership feel full.

Serenity, personal growth and felicity may not be seductive topics for a contemporary R&B record. But other artists might let these motifs land with mawkish sentimentality. For Kehlani, the path to healing isn’t a straightforward journey with a beginning, middle and end, where life can finally begin after reaching some abstract, enlightened state. “Blue Water Road” is a reminder that healing is open, unfinished and everlasting.

Kehlani
“Blue Water Road”
(Atlantic)



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