Kehlani released her first studio album in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records)
“While We Wait” is the third commercial mixtape by R&B singer-songwriter Kehlani. She first came to fame off a string of high-profile features, including Cardi B, Calvin Harris, Eminem, Post Malone, Charlie Puth, Khalid, Chance the Rapper, Zayn, G-Eazy, Kyle and Hayley Kiyoko. In addition to this long string of features, she also had a moderate hit off of her song “Gangsta,” made for the soundtrack for “Suicide Squad.” Despite this long list of features, she has never had a major breakout hit, a fate she might be looking to change with “While We Wait.”
The greatest strength of “While We Wait” is its short length. Coming in at only nine songs and 31 minutes, “While We Wait” manages to avoid the repetitive padding that plagued her past works. Her talents as a songwriter are on constant display, and she has a demeanor of confidence that manages to shine through on every track. She has finally found her niche in smooth, pop-minded R&B that she shines across the mixtape in.
The mixtape opens on “Footsteps,” a slow, production-focused track with her vocals taking a backseat to lyrics and vibe. It follows Kehlani leaving a relationship that she feels is a sinking ship but wishes to leave a chance for in the future. It definitely sounds like an opening track, but it does not really feel like it represents the more confident tone that she employs throughout the album. This contrast is quickly seen on the second track, “Too Deep,” where she gets cold feet when a noncommittal relationship looks like it might be getting more serious. The confident delivery and upbeat, yet still vibey, R&B style is much more representative of the direction the album goes.
One of the most impressive strengths of the mixtape is its ability to sound both cohesive, yet diverse. All of these songs sound very similar, making it clear that Kehlani has found her voice. The songs utilize this sound in lyrically distinctive ways, which is especially impressive when considering that she wrote every song on the mixtape by herself, save the lead single “Nights Like This.” While the lyrical diversity makes the mixtape a bit less inherently cohesive, it also makes this a strong show of Kehlani’s ability to create powerful lyrics about somewhat diverse topics. None of these topics particularly break new ground, ranging across love and loss mostly, but it demonstrates well that she is not a one trick pony. Her simple but savage songwriting style makes most of the songs sound like they are destined to be Instagram captions, which is a perfect match for her voice, delivery and production.
The main thing holding back “While We Wait” from being R&B-pop perfection is a string of unneeded and unimpressive feature verses. Outside of 6lack’s fantastic appearance on “RPG,” every feature verse feels like they just add unneeded content onto the song, and most fail to match Kehlani’s talent in any way. They are not terrible by any means, but it would have been much more enjoyable to just have the extra Kehlani verse instead of Musiq Soulchild, Don Kennedy and Ty Dolla $ign.
The best song on the album might actually be the lead single, “Nights Like This,” where Kehlani laments over the loss of her ex-girlfriend, who left her for a man. Not only is this a rare glimpse of impressively subtle LGBT representation in mainstream music, but it is just a great song all around. The lyrics are a perfect mixture of heartbreaking and trendy, it is one of her most impressive vocal performances on the album and the chorus is super subtly catchy.
On “While We Wait,” Kehlani shows off her versatile and powerful songwriting abilities with a more confident vocal flair, suffering only from guest verses that took away from the clear rising star Kehlani.
Overall grade: A