The cloudy grooves of the Oakland singer’s second full-length album showcase her voice and her clear-eyed approach. These are love songs about all the forces that make and break romance.
Three days after the Valentine’s Day release of Kehlani and YG’s lovebird duet “Konclusions,” Kehlani uploaded an anti-Valentine to SoundCloud. By design “Valentine’s Day (Shameful)” has the dour feel of an uprooted flower bed, a gnarl of dirt and worms and grit. The song is nominally a breakup ballad, but tucked between the kiss-offs and spilled tea is a quiet grace. “Ain’t no regrets ’cause I’m proud that my heart was so pure/And I’m never ashamed of my love,” Kehlani sings, consoled by her honest effort.
It Was Good Until It Wasn’t expands that poise into an ace R&B showcase. Less explicitly autobiographical and triumphant than her previous music, the album’s emphasis is on immersion. Kehlani takes emotions and situations and bathes in their contradictions and tensions, often arriving at clarity rather than catharsis. This results in love songs that are more about the mechanics of relationships, how and why they work (or don’t), rather than their discrete participants. The album feels like a subtle rejoinder to the aughts obsession with phones and miscommunications, mining all the other forces that make and break romance.
The record begins with “Toxic,” an ode to a partner who Kehlani likens to tequila for the way he unhinges her. Built on reluctant praise, 808s, and dulled chimes that pulse like a headache, the song introduces the thesis of the album. “I get real accountable when I’m alone,” Kehlani sings as she yearns for a problematic lover. For Kehlani, accountability is separate from resolution. When she looks into the dark heart of this toxic arrangement, she recognizes that its danger is precisely what she wants.
That sense of love as risk is a feature of Kehlani’s music, but It Was Good Until It Wasn’t has a sharper sense of the specific stakes of taking the plunge. “Bad News” distills the thug-love trope to its anxious essence: “Don’t wanna get no call with no bad news,” Kehlani sings frankly. It feels like a prediction more than a plea. “Tell your girlfriend that you single,” she demands on “Can I,” flipping Aaliyah’s coy “Come Over” into naked lust. On “Everybody Business,” she deflects ambient gossip into a warning to the naysayers: “Don’t make me feel bad for lovin’.” In all these instances, love has ramifications beyond the feelings of two people.
Isolation and distance are recurring themes, giving the record’s timing an eerie relatability. On highlight “Hate the Club,” Kehlani’s harmonies swell and shimmer as she watches the clock and the door, drinking to endure the arrival of an estranged lover. Jahaan Sweet and Yussef Dayes’ lush, loungey production laces the scene with sweet irony; it’s as if the mere thought of her amour showing up makes the night bearable. On “Can You Blame Me,” that intense craving for affection produces one of the strongest couplets Kehlani’s ever written: “I would rather argue than me sleep alone/Rather call you out than no one call my phone.” The line conveys the underlying cravenness of affection, its ability to melt away reason and indulge the lonely human within.
Coincidentally and intentionally, R&B artists have made some of the strongest songs about separation during quarantine, but It Was Good Until It Wasn’t is best understood as a continuation of the genre’s longer tradition of probing loneliness. The production here fits that pursuit, replacing the sunny, poppy swells of SweetSexySavage with cloudy grooves that rock and sway rather than ascend and drop. This shift allows Kehlani to layer her voice as well as flex it, an approach that works wonders on “F&MU,” where her background vocals trace the main melody as well as Jahaan Sweet’s synths. She’s alone but she isn’t.
The lack of distinct characters in Kehlani’s storytelling can make the conflicts and hookups at the heart of her songs feel diffuse, as on “Grieving,” where it’s unclear whether James Blake is playing the ex mentioned in the first verse or himself. Likewise, the lover praised on “Water” just sounds like some schmuck who gave a good lay. But she’s becoming an increasingly agile performer, rapping, singing, and everything in between. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t channels all those skills into sterling R&B that feels like a homecoming of sorts. Just a few years ago she declared, “I don’t even make R&B.” Change is good.