Kiana Ledé is one of R&B’s brightest rising stars but that doesn’t mean she always embraces the compliment.
“I kind of have mixed feelings about it because it gets me in my head about me needing to do more or me being more invested in my craft, or I just don’t have the right (industry) politics surrounding me,” said Ledé, who’s launching the international leg of her “Grudges” tour Tuesday starting in Auckland, New Zealand. “(But) it also makes me feel great because they’re clearly appreciating me and understanding that I do this for healing purposes and that the music is just good.”
It’s a pivotal moment in the career of the 26-year-old songstress whose upcoming tour stops include London, Paris, Sydney and Berlin. Ledé, who wrapped up her 21-date North American tour in October and recently parted ways with her record label, Republic, has built a loyal fanbase and respect from industry contemporaries. But she doesn’t always garner the same attention as some of the leading ladies of R&B’s new generation.
“I probably get at least four tweets every day with my name mentioned next to ’underrated’…that is a constant conversation that people have about me,” said Ledé.
Crafting popular songs like “Wicked Games ” and “EX,” which reached No. 9 on Billboard’s hot R&B songs chart, the Phoenix-raised artist released her sophomore album, “Grudges,” during the summer. The 17-track project has features from Bryson Tiller, Khalid and Ella Mai, and is executive produced by Nija Charles who scored a non-classical songwriter of the year Grammy nomination for her work on Beyoncé’s “Renaissance.”
“Grudges” follows Ledé’s critically-acclaimed debut, “Kiki,” which reached No. 30 on the Billboard 200 and No. 7 on the top R&B album charts. Her latest work unabashedly recounts her experiences with love and unhealthy relationships, a musical composite sometimes referred to as an unofficial genre, toxic R&B.
“‘Grudges,’ I think, is…me just being able to be honest about what I was going through in that moment, knowing that it’s healthy and okay to be upset,” said Ledé, who has writing credits on every track. “I’ve been so happy with the response to ‘Grudges’…I always say this almost every show, I have two goals: to make you twerk and to make you cry.”
Part of what draws fans to the artist, whose previous collaborations include with Usher, Kehlani and Offset, is a combination of raw transparency and skilled writing, conveying sensitive emotions through the music.
“It’s her being so relatable and being so real…I feel like a lot of artists are robots – artists are just moving on what people are telling them to do,” said Christine Sanchez, Ledé’s manager. “We’ve all been in a place where we’ve just been bitter after a relationship. But for someone to acknowledge it and be so honest about it, you’re just like, wow, OK, I see myself in her.”
While Ledé introduced the album with the Ella Mai-assisted “Jealous” and the sultry track “Deeper,” songs like “Same Type” highlight her vulnerability, as she laments about significant men in her life, including her father, all being the same type and the emotional scars they’ve caused. And on “Deserve,” Ledé addresses being sexually assaulted.
“I remember crying almost that whole session… I needed to help myself heal from that situation because that was about me being raped a few years before,” recalled Ledé. “There’s some people I told about that experience that either didn’t believe me or never went through it, so they didn’t really empathize or sympathize. And with…almost every person in that room being a woman, I felt so heard and seen and loved.”
Ledé says she’s been working to heal from painful experiences from her past.
“There’s still a lot of ways it affects me to this day…most of my sexual experiences have been traumatic,” revealed the singer. “But I’m a lot more balanced and healed than I was even six months ago, a year ago. So, I think over time, it gets a little bit quicker – but I also have a great therapist.”
Ledé first experienced depression at age 12 and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during the coronavirus pandemic. The singer, who has Black, Native American, Mexican and white heritage, initially rejected the diagnosis, saying “she was a white therapist, so I didn’t trust her with half the stuff that I was telling her about,” sharing the mistrust many people of color have toward medical professionals. Actor Jennifer Lewis, who has bipolar disorder, also hinted to Ledé that she might have the same mental health issue, but it wasn’t until Ledé found a Black female therapist that she accepted it.
“The way that she said it just felt so gentle…she showed me basically a road map of how I can feel more healthy mentally, and how I didn’t have to struggle as much as I was,” said Ledé as tears formed in her eyes.
Describing her sound as alternative R&B, Ledé grew up listening to an eclectic mix of musicians. Citing Alicia Keys as a significant inspiration, she was also influenced by artists such as Ne-Yo, Ryan Leslie, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, along with pop and alternative acts like The Spice Girls, Justin Timberlake, John Mayer and Sara Bareilles.
Ledé’s entrance into the music industry began at 14 after she won KIDZ Star in 2011, the annual Kidz Bop talent contest. That led to a record deal with RCA, and at 21, she joined Republic Records. In addition to her two studio albums, Ledé has released several EPs, including 2018’s “Selfless” which birthed “EX” and “Wicked Games.” She’s also an actor, securing roles on “Scream: The TV Series” and “All About the Washingtons.”
While “Grudges” hasn’t garnered the commercial success of “Kiki,” Ledé has been taking back control of her life in all aspects, and her manager says momentum is moving in the right direction.
“The music’s always been her, but as far as putting it out into the world, it’s always been a bunch of people helping… kind of really (being) told what to do. And (“Grudges”) was taking control back,” said Sanchez, who understands Ledé’s apprehension over the underrated title. “Nobody needs to change her. We just need to amplify her, and that’s the next step…her moment is coming.”
Ledé is also optimistic about her future, both in her career and personal life, but she’s also laser-focused on the present – and that includes connecting with those who love her music the most, at home and abroad.
“Being on tour, being on stage in front of my fans, that’s where I feel like my heart and my spirit, my soul, my body… lives the biggest and feels the most love,” said Ledé. “I love just making people feel something and making people smile – and it makes me smile.”