Think back to the last time you met someone new.
You both are in the thick of a day that seems to be attacking you on all sides. But, for a few seconds, life is reduced to this singular attempt at connection. Now, imagine instead of there being a clean slate, the other person can see all of your previous partners, as well as every mistake you ever made in life. Take this mindstate, add some toxicity, and you might be a bit closer to understanding Kehlani’s new album, “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t.”
Kehlani has lived a full life at only 25 years of age. From debuting on America’s Got Talent at 14, to being involved in several controversial relationships, to surviving an attempted suicide, to becoming a mother, she has a wealth of material to pull from. Much of this vulnerability was explored on her 2017 debut, “SweetSexySavage,” but too often it felt like she wasn’t in the driver’s seat and was just being used as a vehicle to make glossy radio hits. “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” is a much more concise portrait, in which Kehlani finds confidence in dysfunction.
This self-assurance is explored through her sexuality, which is the most common theme in both the album and the DIY music videos she produced in the wake of the album’s release. This isn’t just for its own sake though. Kehlani is perfectly able to convey how sex can be manipulated and used as a bargaining chip in a failing relationship. She sets the levels on the opener “Toxic,” in which she acknowledges the unhealthiness of her dependency on her partner. She and Tory Lanez trade provocative verses back and forth on “Can I,” and on “Water,” she makes the exact comparison you’re thinking about.
The production throughout much of the album is darker than on “SweetSexySavage,” but Kehlani’s changes in attitudes and lyrical concepts aren’t coupled with much variance in the tone of the instrumentals. This results in a very easy listening experience, but one that doesn’t really highlight the story she wants to tell.
But there isn’t a real sense of gravity to what Kehlani is talking about, maybe in part because she doesn’t really delve deep enough into the effects these toxic relationships have on her life. But then again, this isn’t an album that provides solutions. It only captures the moments as they happen.
There are some phenomenal instrumentals, though, such as the harp switch up on “Open (Passionate)” and the moody synths on “Can You Blame Me,” where Lucky Daye shows why he’s a rising star. Kehlani tells of struggles to love authentically in the face of media attention on both “Everybody Business” and “Serial Lover,” and attempts to get her partner to change potentially destructive habits on “Bad News” and “Change Your Life.” She isn’t blameless either for this toxic behavior. On “F&MU,” she deliberately creates conflict with her partner to have better sex. These songs aren’t for functional relationships, they’re the soundtrack to breaking quarantine to go see someone you shouldn’t.
Thinking back to the title, this album shows how what’s actually good for us in our romantic lives can be unclear. The painful mourning of a relationship on “Grieving” is better for us in the long run than the pleasure chases of “Toxic” and “Water,” but in both moments, you could never convince us of this.
The album’s front and back cover art depict a vicious cycle, as well as a feeling of being trapped. Both the outer world and the inner world are in their own wars, the past and the future, Kehlani and her partner, however you choose to interpret it. It seems like time is the only thing that can lift her out of this cycle, but with this album, Kehlani memorializes this time period and shows the perils of figuring out who you are through the vessel of those around you.
Contact Thomas Holton at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thomas__holton.