Release Date: Oct 6, 2017
Record label: Warp
This is everything. Plenty has been made of the doldrums in which the music industry has seen fit to leave recent promising female voices in R&B. Tinashe is still struggling to build on her early momentum, with several unfairly shirked releases to her name, Jhene Aiko just got the face of the most charming talent vacuum in hip hop tattooed on her arm, struggling to find a balance between the dead end collaboration with him that is Twenty88 and her own more personal trials on the ambitious but vastly overlong Trip...the list goes on.
At the climax of the second season on HBO's Insecure, Issa Dee, one of the show's protagonists, suddenly snaps and trashes her entire apartment. In a season filled with seething frustration, humiliation, failed romance and emotional weariness for her character, it's a cathartic moment the show had been slowly building towards. The entire scene, from the simmering emotional tension to its volatile release, is perfectly soundtracked by "Frontline," the opening song on Kelela's long-anticipated debut album, Take Me Apart.
Kelela is an intellectual in search of the body high. During the bountiful era of her early 30s, she has become exceptionally aware of the way club tracks work best when tuned to the head and the heart. Her 2013 mixtape, Cut 4 Me, remains a hallmark of the genre, a moment when the next-level producers of Night Slugs and Fade to Mind found a unified center within Kelela.
Both were releases that demanded your attention by flitting through an encyclopaedia of emotions. They painted Kelela as an artist that could dart between dark and dance-y, intimidatingly gutsy and uncomfortably intimate without even breaking a sweat. Her debut album sees the artist refine and ramp up these moods up to a terrifyingly emotive affect.
It’s a rare feat that Kelela Mizanekristos has accomplished, establishing herself as such a driving force in contemporary electronic and R&B music over the past several years, all without releasing an official debut. I wrote something similar about Sampha’s Process earlier this year, though by comparison, Kelela’s slow-burning ascension has been driven less by high-profile collaborations and more by the peripheral creep of her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me and 2015’s Hallucinogen EP (though her Danny Brown and Solange features last year certainly helped as well). Even as her work and aesthetic has informed the likes of artistic giants like FKA twigs, however, Kelela has up until now been an influencer largely from the shadows.
Can one successfully rewind and fast-forward at the same time? Kelela, it seems, is a dab hand at it. Over the course of one celebrated mixtape, 2013’s Cut 4 Me, a 2015 EP, Hallucinogen, and, now, her long-awaited debut album, one of the most arresting new voices in R&B has created a deft stitch in time, laying 90s R&B vocals over cutting-edge digital production techniques. If that summary seems reductionist or formulaic, it shouldn’t: Take Me Apart is a very spacious operation in which the 34-year-old ponders love, lust and hurt as soundbeds break down around her. LMK, the lead track, is Kelela’s most accessible case in point.
W hen Washington-born singer Kelela released her first mixtape, Cut 4 Me, in 2013, her fusion of sumptuous R&B vocals and harsh, avant garde electronica made a splash. But in the four years since, alternative R&B has gone from bleeding edge to genre du jour: in a class now crowded with thoroughly modern divas, has anyone has been saving Kelela a seat? As her debut album opens, the idea that the singer may have been left behind by the sound she helped establish doesn.
Kelela is unafraid of the darkest parts of herself and frequently given to diving deep on her long-awaited debut album, Take Me Apart. In it, she is intimately familiar with and affirmed by candor, as evinced by the first lines of the lead track, “Frontline”: “There’s a place you hold I left behind, I’m finished/ Since you took your time, you should know why I’m quitting. ” Threading razor-sharp lyrics across 14 tracks, Kelela crafts a powerful statement about who she is, who she is not, who she might take home, and who she has no desire to engage.
Since her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, Kelela has been one of R&B's most buzzed-about up-and-comers, an enigmatic presence who melds her strong yet acrobatic voice and bottomless fascination with music's potential into hooky, forthright post-millennial soul. Kelela has, in the last year, dueted with Solange on A Seat at the Table's crystalline "Scales" and added her voice to Gorillaz' cacophony of Humanz. Her debut full-length fuses together jagged textures, vaporous synths and her versatile voice into forward-thinking R&B animated by its restless innovation.
On the one hand, the album lies very much in the lineage of (seemingly) apolitical romance that’s been the majority positionality of music in the genres that make up the past to its “future R&B” (R&B itself, jazz, neo soul). And indeed, which has been the raison d’ ….
On 2013 debut mixtape ‘Cut 4 Me’ Kelela stepped forward with a collection of tracks that showed off her love for a range of genres, combining them together into a darkened dance collection. Four years and one EP later, she’s finally ready to unleash her debut album proper on to the world, fourteen tracks navigating love and the dissolution of ties while also bringing her musical identity further into the foreground. As such, ‘Take Me Apart’ is awash with glacial synths, trap beats and bass-laden electronica that’s brought together under an R&B sheen. It’s also a record characterised by juxtapositions, mirroring the breakdown of relationships and hope for new ties that Kelela explores.
On her debut full-length, Kelela tackles the ghosts of her past love and starts anew, the decadent opener ‘Frontline’ beautifully capturing the angst that comes with moving on. Retaining the grit and cold effect electronics that defined her breakthrough mixtape ‘Cut 4 Me’, Kelela becomes the siren, scorned but braced for impact, the garage-inflected ‘Onanon’, hitting you in the proverbial with its lush, programmed melancholia. Much of ‘Take Me Apart’ takes the listener through familiar tropes - female autonomy, sexual awakening and despondent love - yet it strikes a different chord, the LP whizzing by with a breathless urgency mapped out by the stellar production of premier collaborators Arca and Jam City, who understand the delicate contours of Kelela’s voice.
Though Kelela’s art proudly exists left-of-center, she’s never come off like a peculiarity or a novelty. Her influences—underground bass, turn-of-the-millennium R&B, post-dubstep chaos—meld with her sinuous, jazz-inflected vocals into a new kind of emotional language. The aesthetic is weird, but the humanity is familiar—a tension that animates Take Me Apart, her debut LP and strongest work yet. “LMK,” Take Me Apart’s lead single released this summer, showed Kelela was preparing to make a grand-scale leap.