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‘You Should Be Here’ Was Kehlani’s Breakthrough Moment
You Should Be Here showcased Kehlani’s ability to tell tales of self-realization in a way that was charming, candid, and vulnerable.
Kehlani’s second mixtape, You Should Be Here, dropped when I was in high school. I had just subscribed to Apple Music when I came across its illustrated cover art — Kehlani overlooking her Oakland hometown and the Golden Gate Bridge as a plane flies above in the distance, the then-teenage singer surrounded by her essentials: a pair of Vans Sk8-Hi’s, an open laptop, and a MIDI controller. I saw myself in Kehlani: a young woman sitting at the edge of the world before her, ready to face what’s ahead. I added the mixtape to my library and spent the rest of my high school days drowning in the project.
Released five years ago this week, You Should Be Here served as the follow-up to the singer’s 2014 debut mixtape, Cloud 19. Written and released when she was 19-years-old, You Should Be Here showcased her ability to tell tales of self-realization in a way that was charming, candid, and vulnerable, propelling her career as an R&B singer and helping to solidify her as one of Oakland’s most promising stars.
By the mid-2010s, a number of contemporary R&B women singers had sprung up: there was the psychedelic soul of Jhené Aiko, the moody alternative R&B of Tinashe, and the neo-soul of SZA. Among that class was Kehlani, an artist bridging the gap between classic and modern R&B.
An integral part of R&B is storytelling: those stories of a one-of-kind love or heartbreak that stays with you well after the song comes to an end, the singer’s lyrics and voice conveying a feeling that — even if you’ve yet to experience yourself — you still get it. You Should Be Here’s story starts even before the music begins. The cover art brings you into Kehlani’s world, the bright, purple, and yellow skies above the Bay Area foreshadowing the love and strength she finds within herself after overcoming heartache, loneliness, and pain, her journey captured throughout the mixtape’s 15 tracks.
“[The view is] from the back of me because I really want people to understand that all of this is from my view. This is from my eyes,” the Oakland singer said of the artwork in a 2015 interview with VIBE.
From the very beginning, Kehlani presents the mixtape as an intimate listening experience. The opening track, “Intro,” features a phone call with her grandfather, followed by a monologue where the artist expresses the early pain she endured and how she maintains her strength.
“I’ve seen things and I’ve felt more pain than some will in their entire lives, all before the age of even being able to buy a fucking drink at a bar,” she says. “But I have to be strong, not for myself but for a greater purpose, because I feel like my duty is far beyond me, you know? It’s for the world because somebody out there really needs to hear this.”
That desire to share her story in hopes that others may resonate with it is central to You Should Be Here. In a 2015 interview with Peter Rosenberg, she opened up about her rough childhood in Oakland, where she was raised by her aunt after her father died, as well as her mom being in and out of jail.
“I was really angry. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t have two parents and other kids could have at least one parent,” she said. “I just couldn’t grasp it.”
On You Should Be Here, she expresses the resentment she felt toward not having her mother on “The Letter.” Her songwriting shines on the track as she sings, “And every girl needs a mother and damn it I needed you / Instead, you ducked for cover and ran from the truth.” Kehlani’s unflinching admission of feeling abandoned by her mother is felt even more by her audible crying, as if she’s confiding in the listener as a longtime friend.
Navigating life amid tragedy and triumph is a focal point for You Should Be Here. But the mixtape also showcased the young artist’s ability to candidly speak on themes of heartbreak and romantic relationships, too. She airs out her grievances with trifling ex-lovers on back-to-back songs “Jealous” — which features her late friend and rapper, Lexii Alijai — and “Niggas.”
“Too damn strong to let you get the best of me / took way too long to find the light inside of me / fuck all these niggas,” she sings on the latter track. It’s a line that’s direct in its delivery, as well as a reminder of how far Kehlani has come in championing for herself. She’s been through too much to have anyone — especially a man — diminish her greatness. However, that doesn’t mean the artist isn’t hopeful about love and the euphoria that can come with it. Songs like “Wanted” and the Chance the Rapper-assisted lead single “The Way" find the Oakland singer rejoicing in the thrill of romantic relationships, the latter track becoming one of her most popular songs to date.
Although it’s not overtly expressed throughout the album, Oakland is the backdrop for You Should Be Here. The only moment where she does acknowledge her hometown roots is on “Runnin,” in which she sings the following in the track’s first and only verse:
Said it's something about my city, something about my city
Oakland girls so damn hood but we're so damn pretty
Sometimes the town just brings you down
But we feel no pity
It’s a brief but notable moment that highlights her relationship to Oakland, something she discussed frequently in interviews following the release of You Should Be Here.
“Oakland’s its own little planet in the Bay,” she said in a 2015 interview with Skee TV. “It gave me a lot of character. We have a lot of culture and community. We got a lot of violence, but I think there’s more heart to it.”
You Should Be Here went on to become Kehlani’s breakout moment. The mixtape appeared on a handful of 2015 best album lists, and even received a nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album at the 2016 Grammy Awards. The earnest and relatable songwriting that made You Should Be Here such a success has only gotten stronger with her subsequent releases, SweetSexySavage and While We Wait. The former, her 2017 debut album, told similar tales of romance and self-love but from a more mature and unapologetic attitude. “I’m too much of a woman, too much of a woman, too much of a badass bitch / Too much of a boss, baby, it’s your loss / Now you gotta live with it,” she sings on standout “Too Much.” Kehlani was older and more sure of herself on SweetSexySavage; this assurance persists in her 2019 mixtape While We Wait, where songs like “Morning Glory” and “Love Language” find her confidently expressing what she wants.
In looking back on You Should Be Here, it’s incredible to witness just how much of a star Kehlani became on a national and regional scale. She has become a symbol of Oakland, having hosted an annual Kehlani and Friends Christmas concert since 2015, as well as using her platform to advocate for people like Nia Wilson, the Black teen who was fatally stabbed by a white man at a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in Oakland two years ago.
The legacy of You Should Be Here is also bittersweet too. Friends like Lexii Alijai who were integral to the mixtape, are now gone. The artist passed away at the age of 21, her death the result of an accidental overdose of fentanyl and alcohol. Earlier this year, Chynna Rogers, another close friend, passed away at the age of 25 from an accidental drug overdose. Just as much as You Should Be Here is an ode to relationships that have come and gone, it was also looking toward the future: toward new friendships and relationships, some of which have unfortunately been shortened unexpectedly.
With her second studio album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, dropping this week (May 8), it’s important to look back at the mixtape that built the foundation for where Kehlani is now. You Should Be Here came from the heart of a teenager who was wise beyond her years, and she succeeded at exuding a level of relatability and sincerity that has become a mainstay in her music since.
Cydney Lee is an emerging culture writer and journalist from Philadelphia. Her writing is featured in VICE, Nylon, Elevator, and more. She spends all her money on concerts and sneakers, and you can find her tweeting about her favorite artists @bycydney.