Kelela is not softening her sound so much as sharpening it.
Ever since cutting her teeth with the best and brightest of the Night Slugs/Fade to Mind production crew for her 2013 mixtape, Cut 4 Me, Kelela has been at the forefront of R&B’s creative resurgence. Her partnership with the Night Slugs gang resulted in a symbiotic benefit; she lent their icy, industrial bass music a human elegance it never showed, revealing the depths of possible expression in even the hardest, most spare production. The production, on the other hand, radically recontextualized Kelela’s voice and lyrics, recasting her longing vocals not merely as calls for a departed love but some kind of futurist lament for a greater sense of loss. Her follow-up EP, Hallucinogen, expanded her sonic palette and complicated her backing arrangements, only solidifying her as one of the genre’s vanguard artists.
At first, Kelela’s long-awaited debut LP, Take Me Apart, sounds like a step backward for the artist. Produced with much of the same crew from the Hallucinogen sessions, the album nonetheless sounds more lush, less jagged than previous releases. “Waitin” recalls Janet Jackson in its elegant beats underpinning an ethereal vocal about being tugged back toward a bad romance by the anchor of nostalgia. “Damn, didn’t we have a good time,” Kelela croons softly, locked comfortably into her electro-soul persona. “Enough” soars on cascading pulses of sound, with Kelela definitively leaving behind the relationship that keeps enthralling her, the floating production a match for the feeling of true liberation. Even the hardest-edged songs contain offsetting moments of beauty, as in the shimmering neon textures that underpin opener “Frontline,” the faint murmur of 4/4 synths and the distant sound of speeding vehicles giving the impression of overhearing Tokyo from a nearby city.
Yet in losing many of the jackhammering, industrial beats of her earlier work, Kelela is not softening her sound so much as sharpening it. Where Cut 4 Me elicited thrills from the tension between the stark, juddering production and Kelela’s equally forthright but inviting voice, Take Me Apart finds the two elements of the artist’s music fully reconciled. When the bass drops on “Frontline,” for example, the shock is lessened by a slight dip in volume that stresses the emotional drain embodied in Kelela’s lyrics rather than its own sonic impact. The title track crafts fills out of a chiming sound effect that crops up in animé to emphasize sunlight gleaming on polished metal that subtly synchronizes with the singer’s fearless come-ons and sexual pursuits. “Better” suggests that Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Tracks Volume II could have been mined for R&B years ago, wrapping faint pulses of synth pads around pockets of negative space and multi-tracked, contrapuntal choral vocals embodying self-doubt before a successful attempt at reconciliation brings a slight endorphin rush of whirring, staccato beats.
Kelela has never lacked for direct lyrics, but the full blossom of her collaborations and sonic exploration only calls further attention to the bracing honesty of her writing. She opens “S.O.S.” with “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,” immediately foregrounding her longing for love in more than just a spiritual sense. Similarly, “Blue Light” details that moment where caution is thrown out the window and you give yourself over to the person you like, her euphoria matched by swooning, rubbery basslines that roar to the front of the mix and joyous swells of white noise. Even when she expresses awkwardness and uncertainty, as she does on “Turn to Dust,” she does so with a frank entreaty to her would-be partner “You’re so bottled up inside/ Spell it out before we divide,” urging him to admit his own reservations to goad her to drop her own.
At no point in her recorded career has Kelela sounded as if she was still reaching for her potential. Like Björk, of whom she is a fan, the artist gave the impression of immediately finding her groove with cutting edge electronic backing, sharp songwriting and a powerful voice. Yet the leap from Cut 4 Me and Hallucinogen to Take Me Apart is as impressive in its own way as the growth toward Homogenic. Though technically Kelela’s full-length debut, the album feels like a next step, proof that her striking sound was no mere gimmick but instead the foundation for one of the most advanced, daring artists in contemporary pop. By the time her emotional journey crests with the hopeful closer “Altadena,” Kelela gives the impression not only of being more secure in love but in her own skin, firmly on the same wavelength with her collaborators, more capable than ever of pushing boundaries with her work.