The artist is beloved for confessional lyrics, but their third studio album asks listeners to put the pieces together instead.
In the most literal sense, the moniker blue water road refers to a stretch of pavement in Malibu where Kehlani worked alongside their team to record their new studio album. Water itself, however, is a transformative source of renewal, cleansing, and turmoil, all interwoven amongst each other in a healing practice – as Nigerian Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti said in 1975, “water no get enemy.” If there is anyone who is aware of this immutable truth it is Kehlani Parrish, who has been fighting the tide of public scrutiny over two studio albums and three mixtapes; in their latest offering, the 27-year-old Oakland native aims to not only ride the wave but find liberation, restoration, and rebirth, musically and corporeally.
As a pioneer in R&B’s shift to an unbridled, confessional approach, Kehlani has endured growing pains of varying intensity in their maturation under the public eye, not only navigating high-profile relationships and the fallout from their demise, but defining their queer identity as a young person coming into their own in the spotlight. Every shift – from bisexual to pansexual to queer and now, lesbian and nonbinary (using she/they pronouns) – came with mixed public feedback with every new update, as if their identity and personhood were forfeited for public dissection alongside their art. There is a clear intent in blue water road to reclaim what was dispossessed: a sense of ease and comfort, and fertile ground to refine their sapphic symphony.
With crisp, airy melodies, generous use of the acoustic guitar, cresting waves, and faint echoes of bird calls daintily layered in, listeners are pulled into the seaside escape where Parrish crafted songs such as the deeply reverent “altar,” an elegy for their ancestors set to melody; or the delightfully up-tempo “wish I never,” where they breathily rap and sing in the crevices of an iconic Slick Rick drum sample. A stunning and intimate duet with The Internet lead singer Syd on “get me started” marks the third collaboration between the two, where the pair offer delicate and hushed vocals to discuss relationship issues. The dizzying, all-consuming euphoria of early love, strings and all, are encapsulated in “melt,” which makes the listener a fly on the wall for a universe of two.
Sonically, the album is thematically coherent and clear — a journey of someone who has emerged from the nadir of It Was Good Until It Wasn’t to find the inner peace and joy that comes with finally grasping the signal among the noise. Songs like ”tangerine” — a barely-veiled ode to the joys of oral sex — and “everything,” which employs queer-coded lingo (“baby it’s the everything for me,” they sing) in the hook, are making a declarative stamp about where Kehlani is choosing to take their fanbase. The lush melody paired with boldly adulterous lyricism in “more than I like” is a track that would be right at home on a Syd album; but despite all these overtures, I don’t find myself gleaning insight about where these evolutions have taken them. Instead of taking us on the emotional, sexual, and spiritual journey that they aimed to offer, it feels like listeners were offered more of a treasure map with phenomenal-sounding clues. The outline is etched out, but we have yet to thread all of these pieces together to articulate a statement of who Kehlani is now and what they represent; perhaps that is because they are still discovering what that is before they can offer it to the scrutinizing public.
The “wondering/wandering” outro, ironically, is where we get the most direct indication of what their odyssey may have entailed. “I had to learn to trust and fall, Receive it all, surrender/The push and pull to break the wall, Rebuild it all, it found me.” The metaphorical references to the restorative and cyclical iterations of water are fairly plainspoken, but they may also be referring to the wall on the cover of their previous album, of which they emerged from the rubble in their trailer to blue water road. In the clip, Kehlani is still injured, walking down a path with no clear ending in sight. While blue water road may be a sound collection of songs, this is only the beginning of their journey of self-elaboration; the true aural treasure comes when we dig a bit past the surface.