Nick Bollinger discusses the abstract electronica, forthright lyrics and pop hooks in the debut of Ethiopian-American artist Kelela.
Abstract electronica and ear-tugging pop hooks, forthright lyrics and the kind of voice that summons up that old term ‘soul’. How often do you find all those ingredients in one record? And how often do they come together as arrestingly as they do here?
It’s been a long time coming. This 34-year-old, second-generation Ethiopian-American first began popping up early this decade, as a guest vocalist with various relatively obscure dance and electronic producers.
Interest grew with the release of her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, where she sang over instrumental tracks with a pronounced UK dance flavour. One track was picked by Solange for her multi-artist compilation Saint Heron. Then came a six-song EP, Hallucinogen, which in many ways was the warm-up for this album.
The voice is mature and assertive. It’s as though having waited this long she knows exactly what she wants, and what she wants to say. The opening track finds her quitting a relationship that has apparently run its course, fearless and with a fire inside her. And in the songs that follow she tracks her subsequent encounters, which are many and various, and always on her own terms.
Kelela worked with a number of collaborators, including Venezuelan producer Arca, fresh from his recent collaboration with Bjork, and American Ariel Rechtshaid, who has helped craft hits for everyone from Madonna to Adele. But there’s a consistency to the sound, which suggests that these hired hands have bought into Kelela’s sound world, rather than the other way round.
With chord changes insinuated rather than emphasised and a masterfully orchestrated clatter going on around her, Kelela takes the 80s-style R&B ballad to a new level of abstraction.
In many ways it’s bracingly modern. You would struggle to find a guitar, traditional drum or keyboard. Percussive glitches whizz and whirr and chords float and bend in an almost purely electronic landscape, where Kelela’s multi-layered voices are like the only human anchor.
In ‘Take Me Apart’, the title track, she invites a new lover to get to know her, piece by piece, which is what you could see the album doing as a whole: a composite of angles and images adding up to a complex but clear self portrait.
Take Me Apart is a boldly modern record. It might not have the sonic signifiers of classic soul, but it has some of that spirit. Jerry Wexler, the great record producer whose credits include Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’, once gave his interpretation of that anthem as a demand not just for the esteem so often denied to black Americans, but also for “sexual attention of the highest order.” In Take Me Apart I hear that as well.