by Michael McKinney
Recommended if you like: Aaliyah, dvsn, Janet Jackson, SZA
Favorite Tracks: 6, 7, 10, 11, 12
FCC: 1, 2, 11
In a short film put together for Dazed Digital’s Spring 2016 issue, Kelela gives what might be her modus operandi: “I’m interested in the things that we’re all thinking about but that we don’t say. The things that are going on with everybody that we don’t really talk about. The things in between. The interlude.” While she’s saying this, the ninth track from her debut album, Take Me Apart, is playing in the background. Kelela has described “S.O.S.” as a hot late-night text – “Hey, what’s really good?” And everything about it points to that: the to-the-point, urgently sexual lyrics (“I’m feeling a lot of pressure / Only you can help me out / Was tryna make it easy / Now your finger’s in my mouth”), the bleary-eyed 2AM synth washes, the lethargic build towards climax. But, critically, her partner never comes. That’s not the point; that’s not what Kelela’s interested in. Interludes, not endings.
Her music has long explored the moments before the moments; it was present in her 2013 mixtape, Cut 4 Me, and it helped fuel much of 2015’s Hallucinogen EP. Also present was the futurism-leaning palette of textures she tended towards, though where Cut 4 Me was jagged and Hallucinogen was polished to a sheen, Take Me Apart lets up on the gas a bit and looks in the rear-view mirror. While many critics were eager to (erroneously) compare her to fellow “alternative R&B” singer FKA twigs, Kelela’s more likely to frame herself in the lineage of Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, and ‘90s R&B. This is music that follows well-trodden paths in pop music while adding nuances and wrinkles at every corner – the split-second before the kiss, the flash of hesitation before a breakup. This is still futuristic music, but it never loses sight of its predecessors, or the club, for too long – it just may not be always geared toward center stage.
For an example of this corner-to-dancefloor dichotomy, “Better” and “LMK” work as well as any. The former rides on a cozy electric piano and nothing else, leaving Kelela to float alone. Like many of the songs on Take Me Apart, it’s about love: “Tell me, is this how it goes when you let someone know / That they gave it their best but you still gotta roll?” It feels like a continuation of “The High,” the closer for Hallucinogen, a forlorn and quiet number powered by a bass thud and keyboard. This time, though, while the sense of resignation and melancholy stays, the electric piano drives most of the track, with the drums relegated to a bridge and given a bigger impact when they finally land; two sonic foundations crashed into each other with a unifying atmosphere laid atop. The listener is left to focus on the lyrics immediately during the opening, with her harmonies keeping the heavier moments from sinking entirely. It’s a crying-in-the-club sort of track, one whose weightlessness makes its punch all the heftier.
So the next track might come as a bit of a surprise: “LMK” works with submerged, sci-fi synths and stuttering hi-hats to make a track that feels immediately anthemic, a feeling amplified by the way its bass bounces off the walls and fills the room in the process, leaving just enough space for Kelela’s vocals. “It ain’t that deep either way” might not seem like it would come out of the previous song’s narrator, but this contrast instead forms a more vivid picture: the breakup to the hookup, the bedroom to the club. And then there’s “Truth or Dare,” one of the record’s most immediately sensual songs, and most sensually immediate – “It’s your turn to be daring / So turned on like I’ve never been touched before.” Together, “LMK” and “Truth or Dare” explore the mind-game of foreplay, in which domination and submission are rolled into one. This pair proves to be indicative of a larger theme: Take Me Apart is built upon apparent binaries – love and lust, yearning and deliberate distancing, co-dependency and proud independence – and approaching them not as opposites, but instead necessary and natural sides to a coin.
This duality isn’t limited to lyrical themes, though. Take Me Apart sees Kelela leaning ever further into pop songwriting, coming out with some of her hookiest songs yet. But instead of abandoning her left-field roots, she’s intertwining them with these more straightforward ones. The one-two punch of “Blue Light” and “Onanon” serves to illustrate this: both are immediately catchy and engaging, stuffed with hooks and textures worth digging into, but the former uses a wobbly synth and an over-processed autotuned vocal line during the chorus that’s nowhere near the Top 200. “Onanon” uses similar tools for a disarming outro: “on and on,” repeated as much as is implied. The conflict the track outlines (“Fight off the tears, I got the taste down / The type when your life is deep into the ground”) and the stressful spiral it leads to (“It’s not a breakup, it’s a breakdown / We’re spinning around”) are reflected in the music: the pre-chorus features percussive pseudo-rapping and airy vocal leaps, the sounds of panic and contentedness rubbing against each other. These are tracks whose lyrics are reflected by the sonics with remarkable consistency, and this aesthetic uniformity makes everything land with some sort of heft.
This uniformity also serves as the record’s biggest pitfall. Too many of these tracks have little to lift them above the rest, their neon-lit synth washes and breathy vocals defining the best and worst songs here; with nothing else to fill them out, they land in a middle-ground of mediocrity. The most notable songs are the ones that push Kelela’s formula to their extremes – the near-maximalism of “Blue Light” and “Onanon,” the quiet soundscapes of “Better” and “Turn to Dust.” And while a middle ground between these two is appreciated, it’s not hard to wish for more defining characteristics on some of these tracks. The most interesting part of “Truth or Dare” is its context within the album and its approach to sex; neither “Bluff” or “Altadena” do much at all beyond the former’s cymbal-scrape and the latter’s doo-wop harmonies. Nothing here is bad, exactly – just forgettable, and that may be worse when dealing with an artist whose biggest initial draw was her futuristic aesthetics.
But those aesthetics get her far, and when her songwriting is similarly compelling, it’s easy to get sucked into the world Kelela crafts. Take Me Apart is impressive on several levels at once, simultaneously a realization of the potential she showed in Cut 4 Me and a hint of where she may go next. Here, she’s made a direct pop record that fully explores the space in between (emotions, environments, people) and pulls from past, present, and future sonics to make something that seems to exist outside of those states. It’s in this limbo that Kelela thrives, and she manages tremendous poignancy and strength within it. The unspoken is said straight, two-dimensional portraits are given depth, and everything gets a second or third side to its story. If this is what she shows in the interludes, what comes next?