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There’s a bit of history behind Kehlani’s “Undercover”—a fact she nods to out the gate. Keeping with pop’s current trend of direct quotation in addition to melodic interpolation, the 21-year-old R&B singer repurposes a line familiar to those who followed 2000s Top 40: “You know they don’t wanna see us together/But it don’t matter, no, ’cause I got you.” At the heart of Akon’s 2007 hit “Don’t Matter” was this sentiment and nearly the same words, funneled through its own borrowed sounds—namely, Kellz’s cadence on “Ignition (Remix),” and a sample of Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe” in the chorus. (What’s funny is that the acoustic guitar strumming throughout “Undercover” isn’t Akon’s making, though it sounds cheesily dated enough to make that seem plausible.) It should be no surprise that it takes a village to make a great pop song, and “Undercover,” undoubtedly a great pop song, is even more striking, considering how self-assured Kehlani sounds.
What makes a song about sneaking around even more delicious is the subtext surrounding who’s singing it. Despite having just released her proper debut, SweetSexySavage, Kehlani is a fully formed personality to those aware of her, whether because of her early start on a reality competition, her long and promising incubation under Atlantic’s watch, or her openness about tough topics like mental illness. Whichever formerly compartmentalized lover Kehlani’s talking about (if any), that is not the point, of course. It’s a supposedly fun game pop stars play to get us talking, and on “Undercover,” it does sound legitimately fun, not to mention intimate and steamy. Decidedly 21st century turns of phrase like, “I’ma tweet our inside jokes to the outside world” and “Hit that 6-9, yeah, that FaceTime,” meet a melange of vibes beyond its reggae-tinged points of reference, from swinging Latin percussion to the kind of bubbly production you might find on an Ariana Grande record. With a secret love that sounds this infectious, you’d say “fuck it” to going public, too.Share