She should be here…

by sydney wanguhu

Over a year ago, Oakland’s finest R&B vocalist, Kehlani, dropped her latest album,”It Was Good Until it wasn’t”. The highly anticipated project flooded my timeline, making me eager to listen, but I have to admit… I was disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a part of the tsunami mob since 2015, and Kehlani’s first album, You Should Be Here, holds a special place in my heart. The title itself immediately makes me think about my aunt, Zippy, who still should be here. 

I remember the first time I heard Kehlani playing on the radio. Her single “The Way” Ft. Chance The Rapper was playing on 106.1 KMEL on a hot summer day. It was almost nostalgic already, reminding me of 90’s or early 2000s R&B, and I instantly thought it was an Aaliyah song I’d never heard before. Whipping out my phone in a rush, I Shazamed it and without a thought, shared the song with my aunt, who soon became Kehlani’s #1 fan.

As someone who listens to albums all the way through, I was disappointed that “The Way” was the only mainstream song off of her debut album, You Should Be Here. The song is a classic without a doubt, but my aunt is the one who put me on with her other masterpieces such as “Down for You” ft. BJ the Chicago kid, a love story about two people trying to define the line between best friends or lovers. The dialect between the two is flirtatious and groovy and will instantly take you back to the year 2000. The sample of Musiq Soulchild’s Just Friends”, is more than satisfying. It’s like deja vu. The sense of familiarity is comforting, but with a new twist, is refreshing. When I told my aunt I didn’t yet know that song, she pretended to be furious. She sat me down at my kitchen table and said: “This is a real love song Sydney. Listen to this and tell me it ain’t good!”. As it played over and over again off of her shattered Samsung phone, we nodded our heads to beat.

My aunt was really young when she passed away from taking her own life. Although not even reaching the age of 21, she’d lived through a lot. Her stories from growing up in Kenya amazed me. I’d always imagine myself in her position wondering if I could go through the same things she went through. My answer was always no, but only because she’s too spontaneous. She was always carefree and unapologetic with every little thing she did. She loved unconditionally and took care of the people around her. Months leading up to her death, she was her mother’s full time caretaker. It was hard seeing her constantly drained while being that young but also inspiring because she put her life on hold for someone else. It was just so easy to look up to her as a big sister rather than my aunt. “I deserve a love that is gonna last”, a lyric from Kehlani’s song “Alive”, is what I imagine my aunt would say if I asked her why she left so soon. Not with a burdened tone though, but as if she closed a chapter and moved on which is exactly what Kehlani portrays through the lively beat of the song. Her ability to address a certain pain and growth over euphoric instrumentals is mindblowing. As you listen, it’s easy to relate and apply the lyrics to the depressing mishaps in life, but instead of being emotionally overwhelmed and crying, the first response you will have is to get up and dance.

I think what I like most about this album is that it’s not overdeveloped. Mediocre doesn’t cross my mind at all, but you can hear the potential within Kehlani’s voice, knowing that it could only get better. The rawness and crackles as she sings makes everything so pure and melts perfectly with the slow ballads. Which reminds me of track 9; “The Letter ” and track 14; “Bright”. Both, filled with simple lyrics and beautiful storylines to follow. It’s impossible to be overwhelmed with dense metaphors to decode in order to relate to her. Applying that same thought process to my aunt, things could have only gotten better for her. Or at least that’s what I think. She was simple. She was raw. What you saw was what you got when it came to her. 

A part of me is convinced that the only reason I didn’t enjoy “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t” is because my aunt was not around to listen to it with me. Kehlani’s music was our thing. It grounded us when we felt like life had swallowed us whole. It played in the background as we did chores. It was the first thing we bonded over when she moved to the United States, and I’ll never forget the look on her face when we both realized Kehlani was our most played artist on Spotify. 

I feel like I’m cheating on my aunt if I express my love for her new album. I can hear Kehlani’s growth as an artist in “It Was Good Until It Wasn’t”, and I applaud for finding a new sound, but I personally struggle with growth and change. It’s been about 3 years and I’m still not over my aunt passing away even when they said “time will heal you”, “just give it time Sydney” as if giving it time will make me forget it all. I would never want to forget a perfect time in my life when I had loving people around me that made music more meaningful. I thank Kehlani for allowing her melodies to further a connection I had with someone who meant the world to me. She deserved better and I will always remind myself and family members that.