Kehlani’s ‘It Was Good Until It Wasn’t’ navigates emotional minefield

Kehlani album review
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Grade: 4.0/5.0

In the cover art of her highly-anticipated sophomore album, Kehlani balances precariously on woven furniture, her back turned away from the camera, peering over a brick wall. She’s midgardening presumably, judging from the running hose in her hand, but something’s disturbed her so greatly that she has to look.

Flipping over to the track list, the same moment is presented from another vantage point. Face on, over the brick wall, Kehlani’s expression is one of paralyzed shock and fear. The scene behind her is devastation and ruin. The burning inferno of pure disaster hints at all the damaging situations and sly behavior that Kehlani used to turn a blind eye to. Her eyes are wide open now, because It Was Good Until It Wasn’t.

Kehlani’s newest album demonstrates a profound growth in emotional intelligence for the 25-year-old singer-songwriter. It gently moves through 15 tracks of songs and interludes as though carried by a summer breeze; her crystalline vocals shine through arrangements of smooth jazz, piano motifs, sedate beats and luxurious twangs of a Spanish guitar. With such careful consideration that seems to create a dialogue between herself and the listener, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t plays like a genuine conversation as Kehlani works her way through past mistakes, lost loves and potential new ones.

Moody synthetic sounds blare the record into life like a 4 a.m. wake-up alarm with the raw opening track, “Toxic,” that details the fraughts of relationships and the toxic cycles that accentuate the pain of being mistreated. She describes her past relationship as an addictive drug – wanting to repair a love that can no longer be saved and is tainted with irreconcilable damage. Kehlani reflects on these burning embers as she sings: “All of this love is toxic/ All these kisses and hugs is knock shit/ You a damn drug, you’re toxic.”

The album is cut up with audio samples, interludes that boost Kehlani’s confidence and educate her listeners. Collaborator Megan Thee Stallion brags about her exceptional character in “Real Hot Girl Skit”; “Belong To The Streets Skit” is an anonymous conversation berating Kehlani’s past romantic entanglements, alluding to how “fast” she moves on and her public navigation of these breakups. The unforgiving glare of the public eye is a running theme in It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, directly addressed in “Serial Lover” as she softly laments “I think I’m addicted to romance/ Showing my whole hands/ Laying my cards out flat.”

High production standout hits are also embedded into the album. The tone changes from reflection and regret, to hope for the future with “Change Your Life.” Jhené Aiko and Kehlani collaborate in a convincing ode to a love interest that shows the personal growth both artists have experienced, as they sing toward healthier situations with new people: “I’m not sayin’ that you incomplete/ Just imagine what we’d be if we became one.” The album works like the seven stages of grief: As it nears its close, the listener experiences “Grieving,” an incredibly melancholic mediation on what went wrong in a past relationship intensified with James Blake’s ethereal falsetto. 

Like its name, “Water” submerges the listener in trickling piano notes, swooning vocals and irresistible melodies that flow with sexual appeal and confidence. The track taps into astrology within the first verse: “Swimming with a Pisces every night/ Head like a Scorpio/ Shy like a Cancer.” Kehlani is a Taurus herself, but chooses to sing about the water signs, who have a special sensitivity in relationships that blow over hot and cold behaviors. She utilizes the signs to channel her emotional side on the album, while also exploring her flaky tendencies.

Channeling her deep and introspective journey of self-discovery, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t breaks the mold of what a heartbreak-to-recovery album is supposed to imitate. Despite facing many triumphs and tragedies since 2017, Kehlani has taken her darkest moments and turned them around by continuing to gift the world with her music. The result of an exhausting public breakup and the pressures of motherhood has, clearly, worked in her favor. In the end, the album’s arrangement of raw, emotional lyrics has proven that Kehlani is a force to be reckoned with.

Contact Salma Gomez at [email protected].