Just when you think you’ve got the whole scene pegged, Kelela comes along and drops her debut album, ‘Take Me Apart’ – a sprawling, shimmering opus which has the power to reconcile the Warp purists and the ratchet pop lovers on the dance floor.
And on the sofa, too; despite Kelela’s strong pop sensibilities, she’s able to make an album that’s technically staggering, wonderfully paced and pulls influences from some pretty hard-to-reach spots on the musical map. Imagine if Aaliyah’s ‘One in a Million’ and Brian Eno’s ‘Apollo’ had a baby, and that baby/album was subsequently raised by the UK bass music scene. That should give you a ballpark idea of what this thing sounds like. It’s the culmination of her last five years of hard work manifesting as a sonic highlight reel of cosmic bangers, but don’t get it twisted, this is a play-through album which rewards repeat listening.
By my lights, the closest musical relative Kelela has in the scene at the moment is FKA Twiggs, partly because they’ve each created a distinct brand of R&B fit for the future, and also because their innovation allows them to breathe life into old, worn-out tropes. Namely, sex and break-ups. Rather than simply regurgitating these ideas, both artists craft sonic dream worlds for them to exist in. However, where Twigg’s paper-thin falsetto shrouds itself in glassy synth washes, keeping her feelings at arm’s length, Kelela uses her breath-taking range to cut right through the fantasy. She flits from hypersexual (‘Truth Or Dare’) to achingly beautiful (‘Turn To Dust’) like a one-woman collective, whilst constantly going to war with Bok Bok and Arca’s stratospheric production.
Those two names alone give a firm nod towards the flavour of this album. Arca’s impossibly complex sonic blueprint in particular is all over it; the walls of each soundscape breathe and quiver like giant nebulae, eschewing the one-finger-melody trappings of recent years in favour of bigger, bolder statements. The percussion casts its net far and wide, too. From the grime-informed belching bass synth on ‘Bluelight’ to the fluttering D&B breaks and accompanying Reese bass on the title track, ‘Take Me Apart’ flies in the face of trends, subsuming whichever zany genre it fancies under its vast, galactic bounce.
For many artists, this sort of gung ho genre-splicing may prove problematic (I mean, these songs can be so damn busy) – not for Kelela, though. Her voice bobs and weave with laser-like precision, negotiating a warbling synth cloud by ducking behind it and adding some depth, or cutting right through the noise with stacked harmonies and her surgical upper register. She knows exactly when to break a song down and when to stitch one back together, both of which she can achieve with any given breath. A bit like a reined in, slightly less off-the-dome Elizabeth Fraser.
With that in mind, the LA-based songstress can sound decidedly British after you’ve knocked out a few listens, and this is no accident. She borrows the pens of The xx’s Romy Madley Croft and East London’s Jay Prince for ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Onanon’ respectively, to great effect too; key players from Night Slugs and Warp handle the lion’s share of the production, meaning this thing could slap at your little sister’s birthday or a DIY rave; and she even adopts ‘It’s not that deep’ on the album’s lead single ‘LMK’. A little touch, granted, but it adds some real venom to the hook.
There are a couple of things left to make clear: 1) this project belongs in any conversation for album of the year, and 2) in a genre where cookie-cutter teens jostle for the spotlight constantly, Kelela is hitting her artistic peak at 34. Her music, however, is ageless. It nods to the past, leaps towards the future, and exists entirely on her own terms. She is the new thinking woman’s ambassador for R&B.