Kelela has been crafting clever combinations of R&B and electronic music since her daring debut Cut 4 Me. Britt Julious takes stock of Kelela’s growth since on her first full-length, Take Me Apart, an album where you can truly hear her voice.
Kelela has never fit neatly into one box. “I am a black woman, a second-generation Ethiopian-American, who grew up in the ‘burbs listening to R&B, jazz,and Björk,” Kelela said upon the announcement of her new album. “All of it comes out in one way or another.” Not purely R&B or electronic, her music has a subtle, playful Afro-futurist vision. On her first-ever full-length, Take Me Apart, she delivers a sophisticated collection of future-forward pop that hangs tight to the signature brutal honesty that separates her lyrics from the usual platitudes we hear in songs about both love and heartbreak.
Her unvarnished lyrics are deconstructed from a range of moods, from sexually voracious and romantically playful to emotionally confused and sometimes desperate. Kelela demands to take more space just as much in her lyrics as she does in her performances. Her voices finds room in the elaborate, intricate productions where other singers might find themselves either buried or forced to deliver their words like a flourish instead of as the star.
It is a welcome growth from her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me, where her voice sounded claustrophobic throughout what, at times, sounded a little bit more like a showcase for Fade to Mind and friends instead of Kelela’s own artistic statement. Take Me Apart rectifies that issue. Here, Kelela’s voice gets a chance to shine; working with producers like Jam City and Arca she sounds confident and supreme. Take ‘Frontline’, which first premiered in the closing credits of an episode of HBO’s Insecure. Kelela sings, “There’s a place you hold I left behind, I’m finished / Since you took your time, you should know why I’m quitting.” Her self-worth won’t allow her to be held back by her past love.
Although she is often heralded for her clever genre combinations, Kelela’s straightforward communiqués about love and all of its, often ugly, moving parts are where she truly stands out. ‘Truth or Dare’ has nostalgic, percussion-heavy flair reminiscent of late-80s Janet and late-era Sade and Kelela’s sexual confidence peeks through: “Truth or dare / You’re in the position I put you,” she sings in the track’s chorus; “You have to do exactly what I say,” she says on the track’s final seconds.
Likewise, the short and sweet ‘S.O.S.’ is the eloquent and cheeky equivalent of a late-night text. “I don’t take it lightly / That you’re far away / But I need it nightly,” she sings, leaving little doubt to her intentions. Here, Kelela reiterates that she is in control, both on the record and in her personal life. There’s a clear through line running through her role as a singer-songwriter and through the instrumentation on Take Me Apart. Neither is an afterthought for the other; instead, they work hand-in-hand, creating a fully-realized record easy to devour on repeat listens.
Britt Julious is on Twitter.