Kelela is indeterminable. She is the past, the present and the future. She’s an original musical force who refuses to fit into the box the industry asks artists to step into. When you think you know the bounds of her brilliance, they expand. Across a seven year period, from track to track, mixtape to EP to album, her sound has remained the same: a heady mix of R&B, dance, electro, pop and soul. It’s dynamic and it’s hers – nobody can touch it.
Last Friday, after nearly a decade of experimenting and creating smaller bodies of work, Kelela’s debut LP was released. Titled Take Me Apart, it’s 14 songs of sultry, passionate and ingenious music-making. A bare-faced breakup record, it asks those who scour its tracklist to try their best to dissect her. Just wait for Kelela’s permission first.
She’s the master of the slow burner, taking her time with music to make sure the path is properly paved before she takes the next step. But Kelela’s hardly a hesitant character, just a measured one. At 34 years old and having spent seven years toiling at her craft releasing EPs, mixtapes and collaborating with killer artists, her first full-length record has garnered the critical acclaim it so rightfully deserves, propelling her image onto a wider platform for more fans to be drawn in by.
But it hasn’t always been this way. While most musicians arrive in this industry bright-eyed, naive and in their mid-teens, Kelela dropped her first critically acclaimed electro mixtape at the age of 30, after years of performing in clubs, open mic nights and as a member of a few low key bands in LA. Today, she’s a wiser talent; one who has bypassed the obligatory years of being told you’re brilliant when you’re not, waiting patiently to arrive in the music business as a clued-up, fully fledged artist, deserving everybody’s respect. While she has a strong enough creative flare to be signed to a multi-million dollar label, she’s chosen to call London’s Warp Records home, making her label mates with the likes of Flying Lotus, Danny Brown and Hudson Mohawke.
On her first solo release with independent London dance label FADE TO MIND, the 2013 debut mix-tape entitled Cut 4 Me, she would start by working backwards. Setting out to make a body of work that purposely sounded like a remix album, adding her vocals to thundering instrumentals, it would take some of the industry’s most challenging underground producers – Nguzunguzu, Bok Bok and Girl Unit to name a few – to help realize her vision. At the time, electronic production crossing with R&B/pop vocals was pretty much commonplace, but Kelela dug deeper, went darker, taking music more suited to the throbbing walls of Berghain and blessing them with haunting, honey sweet lyrical simplicity. Even back then, Kelela was being referred to as avant-garde.
That perception would only be strengthened by the 2015 release of Hallucinogen, an EP that saw her expand on her list of collaborators to create another stark, sonic experience. Looping in Arca, the Venezuelan producer who’d already made magic with FKA twigs and Björk, the EP transcends from his groaning, heavy beats to the Miami bass brilliance of the single, “Rewind.”
By this point, Kelela’s following was still a little niche. Her success so far had relied on the support of music magazines, queer crowds and the slew of famous fans she was swiftly beginning to gather. Björk would drop “All the Way Down,” a cut from her Hallucinogen EP, during a low key DJ set. Solange had called her up, asking her to appear twice on her compilation album Saint Heron and then again on A Seat at the Table in 2016. British electro band Gorillaz then linked her up with Danny Brown for a collab on their highly anticipated comeback record. It was all looking promising. She might not have been a household name yet, but she was certainly hot property.
Guttural and shaking, sexy and beautiful, Take Me Apart arrived feeling like the perfect representation of Kelela’s self-assured sound; it makes sense that it would be the record that would make most people sit up and take note of her. It takes the usually vapid nature of club music and twists it into an off-kilter break up album, with production credits from Jam City, Arca and Ariel Rechtshaid; Kelela lifts it with her sublime style of songwriting.
She toys with the concept of sensual dominance on the title track “Take Me Apart”: “Boy, you don’t know my bed, well, tonight you might find out”, she teases, “Open up my window, once you’re in there’s no way out”. Note the way she forgoes the idea of finding a rhyme that matches. Kelela twists nothing – especially the truth – in favor of artistic license.
A balancing sense of vulnerability and bare-faced sexuality weaves throughout it, “like a quilt” Kelela has said. “I told myself I needed time, but my discipline is slipping,” she confesses on “Blue Light,” the record’s second single after her nocturnal ode to deconstructing desire “LMK.” Tracks like “Enough,” with scattered, groaning Arca production, tap into her more sullen, morose side of her break up experiences with an equally stunning effect.
As a songwriter, Kelela uses the brilliance of lyrical simplicity to illustrate her intense tales of sex, agency, loneliness and freedom. Often, lyricists like to be esoteric, wrapping up their ideas in impenetrable allegories in fear of being seen as dumb if they don’t. Nineties R&B and chart pop got this right, so it’s no surprise Kelela cites artists like Janet Jackson and Madonna as inspirations. Since the beginning, she too has been driven by the unambiguous brilliance of getting straight to the point.
Thanks to records like Take Me Apart and the equally startling efforts that came before it, Kelela is one of the few artists today that’s proving popular music doesn’t need to be formulaic or facetious. With the right artist behind it, it can be fresh; daunting; brilliant, Perhaps even, revolutionary. It might have taken Kelela a while to find the audience she desperately deserved, but damn, thank God she got there in the end.
For more like this, read our take on how Jacob Banks is modernizing the blues right here.
- Cover Image:Warp Records