From the outset of his debut solo album, Mind of Mine, Zayn promises old and new fans alike an intimate glimpse into his psyche: “Open up and see what’s inside of my, my mind,” he dream-sings on the album’s intro track. It makes sense, then, that he’d want to keep the amount of voices on his record sparse — and so, in a wise move, the album included only one featured artist: R&B up-and-comer Kehlani.
The two trade vocals on the hazy and lustful “Wrong,” which is exactly the kind of boundary-pushing track Z’s been itching to make as a solo artist -- one who’s escaped the confines of pop stardom and wants to veer into uninhibited R&B territory. He couldn’t have picked a better collaborator than Kehlani, then, because the 20-year-old Oakland native is quickly becoming the genre’s brightest young star. If you don’t know, it’s time you know.
Kehlani’s 2014 mixtape Cloud 19 made her a cult favorite for R&B fans, but it was her second mixtape, You Should Be Here, that fueled the breakout year she deserved. The album boasted collaborations from the likes of Chance the Rapper and BJ the Chicago Kid, and even earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Urban Album. Now, she’s one of 2016’s buzziest artists, something that can be chalked up to her blend of fiercely honest lyricism, ‘90s R&B vibes, and calm swagger.
Whether you’re just boarding the Kehlani train or you’ve been a fan since day one, it’s never too late to take a look back at her most essential songs to date. Here are nine of our picks:
This badass, radio-friendly track finds Kehlani in a power position, explaining why she’s up right now and making exactly zero apologies for it.
“Bright” is a light and sunny self-esteem booster in the vein of TLC’s “Unpretty” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful.” Kehlani speaks directly to a handful of people struggling with confidence issues and tells them, “You are what you choose to be, it’s not up to no one else.” This is the kind of song that can feel super cheesy sometimes… except on those days when you just really need it.
“Alive” is a capital-P Pop song that closes You Should Be Here on the most triumphant note. A breakup song overflowing with positivity, it even got a co-sign from Taylor Swift last year.
“FWU” is the best unofficial response to Chris Brown’s “Loyal”; a promise to keep staying true to her man and to see her ride-or-die relationship through to the end.
Kehlani’s debut solo song was released in the summer of 2013 and became the soundtrack for anyone who decided to swear off seasonal, fair-weather relationships. She was only 17 when she released it, but the track’s gentle, old-time vibe immediately endeared her to new fans.
Kehlani and Chance the Rapper trade spacey vocals about desire and longing in the seductive first single from You Should Be Here.
Kehlani has her fair share of cool, DGAF-inspired anthems of badassery, but it’s tracks like this that remind you she can also churn out heart-wrenching ballads that’ll cut through you. The way her voice catches in the final moments of the song, like she’s about to burst into tears, prove there’s vulnerability underneath that tough exterior.
As an openly bisexual woman, Kehlani is one of the few artists today who uses the pronouns “he” and “she” interchangeably. It’s a refreshing dynamic, and one that gets even more intense in the track’s accompanying video, which challenges the status quo of most videos by featuring only women (yep, there’s not one man in sight).
Kehlani serves up a hefty dose of real-talk on this track, in which she coolly reminds you she’s always on guard: “You ain’t my enemy yet, but you ain’t a friend to me yet.”