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Music

How did Kehlani prep for motherhood? By calling her friends and making music

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With her first child on the way, singer-songwriter Kehlani decided to pause the deeply personal album she was working on to record a fun mixtape. The result is the aptly titled “While We Wait.”
(Arturo Torres )

There’s an inherent warmth to Kehlani. It’s present in the soft lilt that peppers conversations with sage advice or when she’s singing one of the empathetic anthems that have made the young singer-songwriter a refreshing presence in pop.

For those who haven’t shared space with Kehlani but are among the millions following the 23-year-old on social media — where she’s been known to freely bare her soul — she’s exactly who you think she is.

There are no airs to Kehlani. She wears her feelings, heavily and without apology, and she’s built a career out of radiating calm confidence and positivity — even when the pitfalls of fame have pushed her to the brink.

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It’s only made sense, then, that she’s brought her fans along on her journey to motherhood after announcing late last year that she was expecting her first child.

With a baby girl on the way — she’s due almost any day now — Kehlani prepped for maternity leave by pausing the intensely personal album she’s been working on to cut “While We Wait,” her third mixtape and first project since her bright major label debut, 2017’s “SweetSexySavage.”

“While We Wait,” much like the Oakland native’s earlier work, is a sweet mixture of vulnerability and resilience that recalls early 2000s neo-soul, rap and “TRL"-era pop and showcases a fully formed artist with a clear point of view.

If “SweetSexySavage” was about creating from a place of happiness, “While We Wait” is about celebrating the beauty in the complexities of life.

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Earnest, unguarded tales of romantic yearning and the heartbreak that often comes with it have always been at the core of her work, but Kehlani has also made space to ruminate on identity, self-love and mental wellness.

She’s written and sung about failed love and sexual freedom and her turbulent childhood and the darkness that led to a suicide attempt with a transparency and optimism rarely seen in pop stars her age. And as one of the few queer women of color to hit mainstream pop radars, she’s become a pivotal voice for her generation.

On the eve of giving birth, Kehlani discussed going back to her mixtape roots, the music she’s put on hold and impending motherhood.

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"Pregnancy has been very emotional for me, and it's taken a lot of my energy. So I knew I was going to need more time on the album," Kehlani says of the album she was working on before releasing her latest project "While We Wait."
(Arturo Torres)

How did “While We Wait” begin?

Basically, I had started an album. I already knew what the album was going to be about. It’s a conceptual album. It’s a very deep concept. Then I found out I was pregnant, and the theme of the album and pregnancy were just so heavily intertwined.

Pregnancy has been very emotional for me, and it’s taken a lot of my energy. So I knew I was going to need more time on the album. I knew I was going to have more stories that I had to work through and get through. In the midst of that, I was just like, “Let me just put that on pause.” To keep myself joyous during a time that has been so mentally exhausting and emotionally draining, I wanted to have fun and get myself through this pregnancy with art in a way that isn’t so emotionally draining on top of a draining pregnancy.

You’re preparing to bring new life into the world, but also at the same time, you’re rising on mainstream radars. Was there a part of you that felt you needed to rush music out, since it had been two years since the last project?

From the business side of things, I knew that a pregnancy would physically put me out of things for a while. What I didn’t know was how my body was going to react to pregnancy. I didn’t know how active I was going to be able to be. I didn’t know what I could get done. I still don’t know how soon after pregnancy it will take my body to heal, etc. Thinking about it from that angle was like, “OK, I definitely need to drop something, because it’s been two years.” Pregnancy is almost a year, and I thought, “I can’t go three years without dropping a project.” Then I know by the time I’m a real mom, my creative process is going to be even more different than it is now.

Has your creative process already changed?

Everything has just felt more mature to me. I didn’t have the same young-minded perspective on a lot of things. There were moments in writing [“While We Wait”] where I’d be like, “Oh, I feel like such a mom saying this” or “This is so funny, because this is so different from 19-year-old Kehlani’s perspective or the perspective I had on ‘SweetSexySavage.’” I think motherhood just changes you all around, so I think it definitely will carry out in all of my artistic projects.

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“While We Wait” seems as if it bridges the gap between your early mixtapes and the direction you went on your debut. Was that intentional?

It was very natural. We stopped working on the album and just made this project in a month and a half. A lot of the producers on here are either my friends or we connected through a friend and we became friends. 6LACK and Ty, they’re both kind of almost family in a sense. They feel genuinely really close. Musiq, I am close to the mother of his child, one of his children. I was just like, “Do you think Musiq will give me a verse? I could just hear him on this and he’s my favorite.” Next thing I know, it was happening. That was awesome. I’ve been a Dom fan since I was mad young. He just heard the song and decided to just come to the studio and lay the verse.

Everything happened just organically. This process was so much different than my other projects. There weren’t these overthinking nights of whether or not the music was going to impress the label or if I was growing in the way that my fans have asked me to grow or whether or not the people that don’t like me would listen and finally become a fan. I only listened to myself and stuck true to that.

It’s tough to transition from indie artist to a traditional label, but you’ve seemed to enjoy a great deal of autonomy over your output. How do you juggle label expectations with your artistic vision?

There’s a lot of experimenting. Since the album, there’s been just random movie stuff or commercial stuff that I’ve released. It’s sort of like, “All right, label, I’m going to give you all this and you all can get your freedom on this. But this is where we meet in the middle.” I’m very fortunate to have a really blessed situation. I have no issues with anybody at my label. They pretty much let me navigate how I navigate because I think that they understand that that’s the only way my fans even really rock with me. They can tell when something is forced. They can tell when something doesn’t feel like me. Even when my social media presence feels forced, they can say that, just because of how close-knit we’ve always been as an artist and support system.

You’re almost 37 weeks now and facing bed rest. I imagine you’ve been racing against the clock to get things done.

Yeah. Getting ready for bed rest and staying off of social media for a while, I’ve shot a lot of videos. I did four — the one for “Nights Like This” when I was five months’ pregnant. I shot “Nunya” at seven months. And I just shot two more in the last week.

You broke out at a time when R&B wasn’t getting much mainstream attention. That’s completely changed in the last two years. What’s it been like watching it, knowing you are part of the genre’s resurgence.

It’s been incredible. When I first came out, I was kind of one of the only ones doing what I was doing and now there are so many artists, that you can put somebody in pretty much any direction and there is somebody amazing to listen to, somebody amazing to support. Not only that, but all of these artists really support each other, which has been really refreshing. Because it was kind of hard navigating through kind of an R&B-less industry with rappers and producers.

Now, not only is there more just R&B artists in general, there are more black R&B artists. There’s more female R&B artists. There’s more queer R&B artists. There’s room for all these little communities, and we all genuinely really [support] each other. That has been really awesome on its own. Being alive and existing and thriving in a time when this is the climate of my industry is a blessing.

gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

For more music news follow me on Twitter:@GerrickKennedy

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