Music

How Kelela Pieced Herself Back Together Again

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Early last year, speaking in a short film for Dazed magazine, Kelela put forth a simple philosophy: “I’m interested in the things that we’re all thinking, but that we don’t say. The things that are going on with everybody, that we don’t really talk about.” But just how do you go about itemizing the individual thoughts and moments that shape character? To turn this reflection inward is daunting enough, but to reckon with the very specific impact we have on others seems like an insurmountable proposition.

This is the challenge the R&B singer set for herself on Take Me Apart, her debut LP, released in August on Warp Records. The album is a razor-sharp study of the ways a person can break and be healed. For Kelela, these two experiences hold equal value: Both dark and the light are worthy of exploration, and no party’s feelings or intentions are spared from scrutiny — least of all her own. Sincerity, power, and of course some fun are the guiding principles in her grand, boundary-pushing vision for the album.

Despite the fanfare that greeted Take Me Apart as Kelela’s official debut, she is hardly an overnight success. The 34-year-old, a second-generation Ethiopian-American born Kelela Mizanekristos in Washington, D.C.  After high school, she spent almost a decade in the East Coast indie scene before moving to L.A. in 2010, where she linked up with edgy label Fade To Mind. The local imprint released her break-out mixtape Cut 4 Me in 2013; a collection of jagged synth textures and dark sonic energy, it was tempered by a soft lyrical tenor — love and lust are ever present.

This was followed two years later by the Hallucinogen EP, a six-song project that was originally intended to tide fans over while she worked on her full-length album. But the EP sounded so lush and cohesive that it took on a life of its own, a decisive turn in introducing new listeners to Kelela’s futuristic soundscapes. Cut 4 Me and Hallucinogen were both critical successes, landing on best-of-the-year lists and setting Kelela up to collaborate with other daring performers that she now counts as friends: Solange, Gorillaz, and Issa Rae, the creator of HBO’s Insecure.

Segments of her debut full-length date back six years. Kelela treats her songs like ever-evolving organisms, adding constantly to older demos and shaping them to fit her mood and surroundings with the help of some key trusted producers: longterm collaborators like Jam City, Bok Bok, Kingdom, and Arca. Take Me Apart echoes her first two mainstream releases in its homage to R&B, lyricism that’s at turns hard like steel and velvety-soft, and a taste for electronica that sounds like it reached our ears a few decades ahead of schedule.

Take Me Apart can be divided into three suites: the end of one relationship, the fancy-free period following the breakup, and the start of a new dalliance. When the album opens with “Frontline,” the breakup is fresh and the conviction to leave is strong: “Couldn’t take it back, even though you wish I could/If you think I’m going back, you misunderstood.” It’s the album’s highlight, a masterful song that sounds of the past while giving an encouraging hint of where R&B is headed.

Elsewhere, Kelela finds strength in vulnerability, as on “Jupiter,” an otherworldly interlude co-written by Romy Madley Croft of the xx. Produced by Aaron David Ross of the NYC electronic duo Gatekeeper, the too-short song speaks of accepting that a love affair is truly over, and using the time alone to figure out who you’ve become when the dust clears.

Though Kelela nods to ’80s and ’90s R&B icons like Janet Jackson and Aaliyah, in working with primarily electronic producers her take on R&B is intriguingly future-facing: “Truth or Dare” and “Blue Light” sound like they were beamed back in time from an era in which genre discussions are much less relevant. When employed, digital effects enhance Kelela’s voice, a full-bodied soprano that she revs up to the mystical whistle register on occasion as audible on “LMK.” Ostensibly Take Me Apart’s pop play, with its catchy hook and nonchalant coda, “LMK” is an incredibly catchy big-bass dance track that comes in at the album’s halfway point, when she has finally thrown caution to the wind (“It ain’t that deep, either way/No one’s tryna settle down, all you gotta do is let me know”).

Whether she’s playing the game with a new love interest or closing the book on an old romance, Kelela takes responsibility for her role in each relationship and the way her actions radiate outward. On “Better” she acknowledges her missteps and puts herself in her partner’s shoes, even hoping that their time together changed both for the better. It takes patience to try to understand another’s nature; with Take Me Apart, Kelela concedes that you cannot ask others to give of themselves without leaving yourself open to that same examination, and she is strong enough to do so. There is beauty in being taken apart when you’re confident that others will like what they see.

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