Kehlani's You Should Be Here struck some surprise blows. Her second self-issued mixtape went Top Five R&B/hip-hop, cracked the Top 40, and was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Urban Contemporary Album. Proper full-length debut SweetSexySavage followed its release by almost two years. While it was in the works, anticipation was built with a clutch of tracks, including a streak of three that charted. The appealingly scruffy and scrappy "CRZY," recorded with up-and-coming duo Denisia Andrews and Brittany Coney, became Kehlani's first commercial hit back in July 2016. Shortly thereafter, the Pop & Oak collaboration "Distraction," a sweet midtempo number regarding a no-strings fling, evoked prime Missy Elliott and Timbaland -- and faintly echoed forebears Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis -- with harmonies that hit as hard as its booming bass. Biggest of all was the Suicide Squad soundtrack's "Gangsta" -- a melodramatic trap-pop ballad that, like many a Skylar Grey co-composition, went down a storm at teen-oriented mall outlets offering counterculture apparel. That song ends this album's deluxe edition. The two preceding singles are on the standard version and more accurately forecast the album's lustrous pop-R&B framing of Kehlani's "I contain multitudes" character. The lows and highs, grief and pleasure, and insecurity and pride are all put on vivid display, and Kehlani pours herself into all of it without overselling a thought. What she and some of her collaborators put forth most strikingly is an aptitude for evoking 1994-1998 contemporary R&B -- not just TLC, whose second album also inspired the album's title, but Brandy and Aaliyah as well -- without sounding like a nostalgia act. Highlights like "Undercover," "Personal," and the "More Than a Woman"-interpolating "Too Much" build on their inspirations with as much style, substance, and singularity as the debuts by Erykah Badu and Maxwell. All the cuts with the revamped '90s touches -- the twitchy drums and fully energized hooks that recall a time when R&B and pop were just about synonymous -- come out sounding fresher than the ones that utilize the trap tricks. The hour-long album is a bit excessive with some nondescript or merely passable second-half pop ballads, but it nonetheless makes good on all the promise of the mixtapes. It's destined to become a 2010s classic.
AllMusic Review by Andy Kellman