In 2017, pop radio sounds a lot like pop radio has sounded for the past 20 years. It's been this way for a while. Last year, The Chainsmokers and Halsey owned the world with “Closer,” which got its super-relatable melody from early ‘00-hitmakers The Fray. Devonte & Tanto Metro’s 1997 classic “Everyone Falls In Love Sometimes” is the backbone for Tory Lanez’s sexy “Luv.” DJ Khaled delivered the biggest radio single of his summer album with “Do You Mind,” which transformed the hook from Michael Sterling’s ‘90s quiet storm staple "Lovers and Friends" into a more luxe affair. And Fifth Harmony’s Camila Cabello curiously mined ‘90s rockers Fastball’s “The Way” for her first solo single “Bad Things,” which has proven to be very popular.
All of this is to say that interpolations have been a staple for making hit records — and helping audience latch on to newer artists — since the dawn of popular music, but they’re currently experiencing a boom tantamount to hip-hop’s pulling from disco in the ‘80s. On Kehlani's debut major label LP, SweetSexySavage, she uses five interpolations to great effect, giving the release a sheen that was missing from her well-received mixtapes.
On “Undercover” — probably the most fun song on the album — Kehlani pulls from Akon’s 2006 megahit “Don’t Matter,” which itself takes a part of its crucial melody from Bob Marley’s 1979 song “Zimbabwe.” (Marley and Akon both received songwriter credits on the track.) “Personal,” another early highlight, is shaped around a vocal melody from Aaliyah’s intimate and powerful “Come Over,” off 1996’s One In A Million. Kehlani exudes the same sort of confidence, belting out “I fuck with me heavy” as the song reaches its peak; it’s the kind of moment that makes you want to leap out of your seat.
There’s a second pull from Aaliyah’s catalog on “Too Much,” on which Kehlani uses Timbaland’s twitchy, famous drum kit from 2001’s “More Than A Woman” to spectacular effect. Kehlani’s hook work on the song — “Two much, three much, four much, five much, for you” — is something that the song’s original auteurs could be proud of, and the song’s rap breakdown is practically begging for a Missy Elliott feature. “In My Feelings” takes the titular hook from New Edition’s Top 10 hit “If It Isn't Love” as a jumping off point. But while the ‘80s song is sugar sweet, Kehlani strikes a tortured pose. It’s an updated, more cynical version on what teen love is actually like. Finally, bonus track “I Wanna Be” nabs the famous comeon from Sasha’s 1998 bop “Dat Sexy Body” (“I would like to get to know you baby”) as one last assertion of the album’s provocative force.
“Factually, hits intrigue me,” Kehlani told The FADER in her 2015 cover story. “As a songwriter, I break down a song’s melody, hook, timing, patterns, wordplay. I study Max Martin and shit. But now, I just focus on making what I make.” Although Kehlani has created a deep bench of singles to choose from, her clever songwriting work does more heavy lifting than just leaning on earworms. The rest of the album is filled with subtler cuts and ballads that address her less-than perfect upbringing and experience with emotionally abusive relationships. As her first official statement to the world, SweetSexySavage's hits and layers add up to a pretty convincing feeling that Kehlani could one day take a place among the R&B greats she borrows from.