Kehlani Is Officially One of This Year’s Breakout Stars. Here’s Why.
Kehlani’s latest album, You Should Be Here, is bringing the R&B songstress closer to stardom than she’s been since a mostly forgotten run on America’s Got Talent.
Her group’s fourth-place finish in the sixth season of the show led then-judge Piers Morgan to note that, “I think you’ve got real talent, but I don’t think you need the group.”
For once he was right. Almost every step of Kehlani’s career has received the kind of support that portends stardom: mentorships from Nick Cannon and former Tony! TonI! Toné! member D’Wayne Wiggins, collaborations with Chance the Rapper and Metro Boomin, touring with the centimeter-perfect haircut known as G-Eazy, and a rumored relationship with PartyNextDoor. Industry connections alone don’t create lasting careers, though, so what makes Kehlani special?
Kehlani Parrish was raised in tumult in Oakland. Her mother’s struggles with drug addiction and a deceased father left her with an aunt whom Kehlani described to Complex as “one of those soulful white women who only [dates] black guys.”
Kehlani’s aunt also fomented in her niece a formative love of neo-soul and R&B. While in high school, a classmate suggested Kehlani sing for her father, who just happened to be D’Wayne Wiggins, brother of Raphael Saadiq, and founding member of Tony! Toni! Toné! Kehlani’s impromptu audition was warmly received, and shortly thereafter she joined Wiggins’ sons in a group called PopLyfe, which peaked in the final round of America’s Got Talent.
Following her brush with stardom–and performing alongside Stevie Wonder–Kehlani returned to Oakland and began three years of… well, not much. PopLyfe disbanded and Kehlani briefly joined a Los Angeles-based rap crew created by Nick Cannon. But it didn’t work out, artistically, so she returned to Oakland, a teenager adrift and now flirting with homelessness.
Anyway, Kehlani isn’t a huge rap fan. She cites Ja Rule as someone she actively listens to, which make her fit in a modern rap group slightly awkward. Cannon, now her manager and mentor, appears to more fully comprehend that; sure Kehlani’s music is heavily indebted to rap, but it’s a link that passes through personal idols like Aaliyah, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill (of whom Kehlani has a tattoo). Her music follows. She’s emotionally attuned, but an unapologetically strong-willed woman whose savvy pro-lady message falls well to the poppy side of militant liberalism.
But none of this would matter if she didn’t have the look.
Kehlani is very much in the mold of an R&B superstar. Her voice is pleasant, a breathy, sensual rasp, but not overly powerful. She can dance, having once aspired to Juilliard attendance, her body chiseled in the image of Ciara. This is 2015, though–teenagers have only known Internet ubiquity, and Kehlani is a reflection of the surface-deep post-everything Tumblr mores of her peers. Her multi-ethnic parentage has blessed her with a strong bone structure and the natural pout that all superstars must have. She’s also covered in tattoos and piercings from face to feet, is openly bisexual, and is constantly photographed in loosely laced, black and white pairs of Vans SK8-Hi’s. She’s simultaneously a Terminator perfectly calibrated to make hypebeasts’ hearts flutter, as well as a lucid, third-eye-open representative for a generation of young women rightfully bashing at the pillars of heteronormative patriarchy.
Kehlani is the pop star her generation wants, and she’s probably the pop star her generation is going to get.