Earlier this year, the L.A.-via-D.C. singer Kelela spoke about the challenges of performing electronic music in a live setting. "I feel like I just want my emotions to be at the forefront of my performance, and if anything distracts from that, I’m in trouble," she told The Cut, riffing on the experience of seeing the veteran of digital feelings, Björk, on stage.
“I like the view from on top,” Kelela taunts on the ghostly trap-noir track “Gomenasai” off of the new Hallucinogen EP, her voice floating higher until it disappears like a loosed balloon into a cloud of synths. It must feel nice up there: The Los Angeles singer has been gunning for the peak so hard that she wrote her 2013 breakout single, “Bank Head,” for ranges of her vocal register she couldn’t even reach at the time. In the video for “Rewind,” a bouncy tutorial in the pitched drums of ’90s club hits, the camera faces upward at Kelela as she moves slowly and surely, lit by the flickering fluorescence behind her.
Listeners often describe singers as sounding confident, in control of their aesthetic, taking a big step in owning their sound. Though her new EP, Hallucinogen, details a breaking relationship, insecurities, and pain, Kelela sounds more in control than she ever has. The most obvious evidence of that growth is her voice. Throughout the six-song set, Kelela gathers momentum, pounces, bursts, and recedes like smoke.
On her breakthrough 2013 mixtape, Cut 4 Me — which finally saw a physical reissue this year — Washington-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Kelela Mizanekristos established herself as an artist to watch, pairing breathy, Nineties R&B-influenced vocals with somber, skittering dance beats provided by an A-team of producers from forward-thinking electronic labels Fade To Mind and Night Slugs. Her new six-track EP picks up where that tape left off, offering a dizzying array of emotional peaks and valleys. Opener "The Message," co-written by Venezuelan producer Arca (who's done superlative work with Björk, FKA Twigs and Kanye West), sees Kelela lamenting the dissolution of a relationship over a slow-burning groove.
Hallucinogen, the new EP from L.A.-via-D.C. R&B singer Kelela, finds the singer at her most carnal and most refined. Like Rahel’s Alkali from earlier this year, it is steeped in narrative — the cutting devastation of rejection and finding clarity within hopelessness on opener ‘A Message’ into the restorative quality of fucking someone else through the rest of the project.
When Kelela’s Cut 4 Me mixtape came out in 2013, it felt like the kind of R&B we’d been waiting for. Many of the genre’s leading vocalists – Mariah, Brandy, Janet – are reluctant to get experimental, perhaps slipping the odd weirdo track into albums that otherwise sound on-brand. Here was a singer with an affinity for hard-sung emotional balladry but also dissonant, artfully constructed beats.
The aspects of Hallucinogen that resonate most are the same ones that did on Cut 4 Me: evocative, futuristic production and Kelela’s penchant for exploring sensual but pained moods. The musical background is often sparse, with synths and samples slowly fading in and out like signal lamps in total, swallowing darkness. That atmosphere is still incredible to get lost in.