The Chicago-bred singer and producer’s homegrown R&B meditates on hurt, longing, and self-protection, embracing the kind of resolute realness that can only happen outside the major label gaze.
Ever since an artist once known as Lonny Breaux decided to defy his label Def Jam and deliver his debut, Nostalgia, Ultra, straight to the internet, the textures of popular R&B have become increasingly homegrown. Whether it’s the lithe heartbreak workout of LE1F affiliate Rahel’s 2015 album Alkali or the collaborations of singer Alexandria and producer Ethereal, there’s been a bounty of music for those who crave soulful vocals over beats from somewhere underground.
On her debut album Forever, Ya Girl, the Chicago-bred, New York-based singer/producer/multi-instrumentalist KeiyaA merges Earl Sweatshirt-ish grime and the grit of deconstructed club with hints of psych and funk. It’s easier to find a singular sound when you’re working on your own, which KeiyaA did almost entirely—she poses for Instagram portraits cradling a microKORG synthesizer—with occasional production assists from rapper MIKE under his DJ Blackpower moniker. It’s even more natural to work mostly alone when your lyrics are laments on loneliness.
“Who is supposed to ride or die for me if not I?” she asks on “Negus Poem 1 & 2,” but not with a de rigeur sense of self-empowerment. It’s one of the many inquiries into the disquiet of being alone that KeiyaA proliferates through discordant synth lines and disembodied voices. She uses that POV to turn the music of others on its head, too. “Forreal???” opens with, “Before I put this pussy on your sideburns/I need to check in with my heart and mind,” a reference to Nicki Minaj’s verse from the Young Money bubblegum bedroom cut “Bed Rock” that turns shock-baiting coquettery—Nicki follows her sideburn remark with, “He say I’m bad, he probably right”—into a self-affirming mantra of protection. When KeiyaA covers Prince’s funky kiss-off “Do Yourself a Favor,” she quiets it to the volume of an internal monologue by someone still enmeshed in a painful end.
On one of the album’s highlights, “Hvnli,” KeyiaA sings, “Gone for so long, I prefer to spend time alone with my pain/Gone for so long, I can barely recall, the last my phone rang.” Its stinging specificity is only part of what makes it so special. She builds on that hurt and longing by speeding up synths in places, repeating the lyrics in plainspeak with alternating intentionality, hanging on to the lines, “I can barely afford to eat/But my love is heavenly,” as a reminder of what soothes. It’s an embodied sound, imbued with the knowledge of what it’s like to fuck up and be fucked up and live to sort through the psychic trash of both things being true. This resolute realness, the album’s plurality of wanting—whether privacy (“I! Gits! Weary!”) or pineapple-pear juice (“I Want My Things!”)—can only happen outside the major label gaze.
KeiyaA seems to be telling the listener that, too, in her use of samples from a TV commercial for the 1986 compilation Hey Love… (The Classic Sounds of Sexy Soul). In the ad, three men and three women sit on separate couches, bored at a small house party, until the host puts on a new album he’s just received in the mail. Pairs form and begin a stilted slow dance to songs like “Betcha by Golly, Wow” by the Stylistics and “Yes, I’m Ready” by Barbara Mason. Before the 800 number fills the screen, one of the partiers says, “Fantastic album, man. Let me borrow it.” The host replies, “No, my brother, you’ve got to buy your own.” When KeiyaA samples their dialogue at the end of “Way Eye,” leading into “Rectifiya,” it’s not just a reference to some of her genre forebears, but a truth about working in your own creative ecosystem: The sound on Forever, Ya Girl belongs to her.