Kelela’s Hallucinogen is a brilliant telegraph of imperfect romance
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. Kelela has made a career on keeping the superfluous out of her lyrics and the writing on Hallucinogen is even more fine-tuned. The theme of pining which was thread throughout her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me is still present here, but more pointed and poetic this time around. Each song beams with growth.
On Cut 4 Me‘s ‘Enemy’, she needed, “someone who knows / Someone who gives a fuck” but here, the lyrics embrace the blithe joy of acting on your most carnal instincts. On ‘All The Way Down’, she sings, “Is my head in the way? / Cos my heart can’t explain / Where we’re going now / Build it up and tear it down / Cared before, but baby, now, I don’t give a fuck”. What Hallucinogen masterfully presents is a set of varied portraits of living in the emotional unknown. It doubles down on the curiosity and yearning of her biggest hit ‘Bank Head’ and positions her in a place with much more control.
There is a beauty given to trustworthy casual sex, both in satisfaction and in emotional care, when you are drowning in a desire to be loved. Climbing through that muck to catch your breath is where you find multiplicity. Our cravings cannot be quelled by simply just having what we want, but it’s an illusion we accept when a want goes unexpressed. Much of what was sung on Cut 4 Me came across like Kelela was sharing a secret; Hallucinogen’s dominion is demanding. It explores what is not straight-forward: The fumbling beginnings, the unconfident endings and the hollow center of mixed feelings.
“Her ability to chronicle love’s unforgiving eccentricities remains irresistible.”
Hanging your hat on a love song comes easy because they are written with doe-eyed or woesome generalities. Kelela, as she always has, utilizes language to draw up the most detailed heart-riddles we tell ourselves. ‘Rewind’ was a stellar single because her production, along with Kingdom and Nugget, invokes So So Def Bass All-Stars in the dankest possible way, but like that compilation’s most memorable track, Ghost Town DJs’ ‘My Boo’, there are caveats when it comes to matters of the heart. Kelela laments lacking an eagerness to be received and the inability to remake that impression. There is no fairy tale to follow because there is so much skittering in reality. Hallucinogen handles how we hold ourselves back and how so much romantic scar tissue can turn you into a fawn gliding a frozen lake.
But in contrast to the lack of self-assuredness in the lyrics, the production is exceptional. Provided by partner-in-crime Kingdom, Blessed & Gifted, DJ Dahi from Ty Dolla $ign’s beat-making super friends D.R.U.G.S., Arca and Nguzunguzu’s MA, there is a clarity and refinement here that wasn’t applied to Cut 4 Me. Her debut output was provocative because it built upon electronic music’s trend of sampling R&B vocals into ghostly layers within the tracks. Kelela became the apparition herself and, in many ways, presaged a lot of the tone of what’s been delivered from singers like Abra, Alexandria and Mila J’s work with BC Kingdom. Hallucinogen finesses the experimental interplay between electronic and R&B making it sound so sturdy that it should be the status quo.
Within such a short, robust package, there is only one real misstep on Hallucinogen. The title track is off-kilter and slippery, topped with garbled vocals that sounds out of place in such an emotionally-driven, tight package. And while nothing on the EP is imprecise, there is something a little jarring about being taken out of such spotless storytelling. But it is steadily anchored elsewhere, particularly with ‘All The Way Down’, which is the collection’s best track, playful in both its production and flirty ambition. Still, the entire EP reminds that love is not necessarily always the answer—or, at least, that it’s more complicated than that. And what starts with someone walking away from a murky affair ends with the similar tumult, albeit, much more meditative. On closer, ‘The High’, Kelela sings, “I never knew, I never cared / I wonder how it came to this / I play it over in my head / You’re watching video instead”. It’s a marker of our entanglements are not always scrupulous, that when we’ve been burned, we’re still capable of acting upon impulses that tow a line between complacency and real fulfillment. It remains a mystery what a Kelela song about real romantic contentment would sound like—although, it would probably still pack a punch to the gut — but, until then, her ability to chronicle love’s unforgiving eccentricities remains irresistible.