Kelela puts the needs of her songs first.
Most of alternative R&B’s major players came equipped with fully-formed identities. FKA twigs is the uncanny-valley provocateur, Frank Ocean the sensitive soul, Miguel the druggy romeo. But we’re still getting to know Kelela, the Los Angeles singer who debuted in 2013 with an acclaimed mixtape. Cut 4 Me was intended to sound like a “remix album,” and indeed Kelela often felt more like a muse for the enviable roster of Night Slugs and Fade to Mind producers behind the boards. On her new EP, Hallucinogen, she takes the lead, stepping out of the shadows ever-so-tantalizingly in the process.
We already know Kelela has great taste in producers, and she ups the ante here by bringing in alt-R&B lifer Arca and Kendrick collaborator DJ Dahi. What Hallucinogen makes clearer than ever is her skill as a vocalist. The production is secondary to her voice, a soaring, keening instrument that maintains a crystalline quality even when it hits Adele levels of physical power. The EP firmly situates Kelela in the melodramatic school of R&B singers.
Hallucinogen doesn’t feel like an attempt to explore the uncharted sonic territory of key alt-R&B releases like FKA twigs’s LP1 or Beyonce’s self-titled album. But it’s a solid, weirder-than-usual R&B release. The producers show all the restraint she doesn’t, and much of it doesn’t have the immediately alternative feel of FKA twigs. The weird pitch-shifting and warped trap drums we’ve come to expect from Arca and Night Slugs are mostly present to add flavor to Kelela’s earnestly un-ambitious songs. Without them, this would be pretty standard R&B.
Sex and relationships are the main focus, and though her line about “lips creeping up your neck” on “The High” suggests a bit of grossness to her approach, there’s nothing as creepy as the Under The Skin-chic album cover might suggest. Her voice usually makes up for conventional lyrics, but not so on “The High,” supposedly the first song Kelela ever made. Her voice is mostly thin and monotonous, and its industrial dirge of a beat does it no favors. It’s amazing how much she’s grown as a vocalist.
The EP’s most viscerally thrilling moment is the title track, an interlude of just under two-and-a-half-minutes. Arca cuts up and pitch-shifts Kelela’s voice while adding spine-tingling, skeletal drums and jarring breaking-glass effects. It’s treated as an interlude, and we can hear Kelela and Arca laughing together halfway through. But it’s easily the most audacious thing here, and more outré-minded listeners might crave it more than the relatively tame songs. Letting loose a bit, this seems like an outlet for the showmanship Arca was forced to dial back to serve Kelela’s pop songs.
Kelela puts the needs of her songs first, and her lens is a bit like George Lucas’ in Star Wars, casually panning over the sort of alien weirdness that would be the focus of lesser work. If she has more out-there material to give us in the future, I’m interested, and it’s hard to gage from this EP what her next move will be. But Hallucinogen presents a modestly great artist in a genre that strives to push the envelope.