Rating: 4 / 5 stars
“Electronic music and R&B have intersected in a particular way,” said Kelala, a second-generation Ethiopian from the District of Columbia, while at one of her live shows at Echo Beach in Toronto, Ontario. The sound on her new album, “Take Me Apart,” is intensely layered, as she delivers a collection of forward-thinking pop tracks that feel heavily inspired by artists from the 90s R&B scene like Spice Girls and Destiny’s Child. Kelala intertwines her vocals with the production in a way that Pitchfork’s Anupa Mistry described as “a sensuous, sensitive, hi-definition approach to R&B.”
She has always been an R&B artist at her core, but that was not always her mainstay. After transferring to an American university from Canada, she began making an earning singing jazz standards at cafes. In 2008, she found herself singing metal after entering a relationship with Tosin Abasi, the founder and lead guitarist for the progressive metal band, Animals as Leaders. The 34-year-old is surprisingly dynamic, yet she continues to not really understand the exact type of music she makes or is going to make. “A lot of our work is intersectional,” she explained in an interview, saying there was not one genre they could find that “fit perfectly.”
Her 2013 mixtape, “Cut 4 Me,” released by the label Fade to Mind, was groundbreaking. The Guardian described it as “twisted R&B,” with warped melodies that swirled around the listener’s head, dealing with topics like sex and seduction. Her soft vocal delivery has drawn comparisons to singer Aaliyah, but showcases a transformative quality that reveals her obsession with ambient and experimental acts like Bjork and Arca. It was a landmark in the evolution of R&B as a genre, and it carried over well into her 2015 EP “Hallucinogen,” a psychedelic trip in which she sings about the ending of a relationship in reverse chronological order.
Her new album, “Take Me Apart,” is one that expands on the sound she has already established, creating songs that are much more solidly composed and thought out. “Frontline,” the lead single off the album, has a deep, dreamlike atmosphere that complements Kelala’s wavering vocals. It is the kind of song that is perfect for cruising along the highway at night. “Enough” is a slow-builder, carried along with tribal percussion that relentlessly rattles along as Kelala sings, “but it’s not enough, it’s not enough right now.” The song “Truth or Dare” has a beat that rocks the listener’s head back, with a futuristic groove and stripped-back drums that give Kelela a huge presence.
For a listener who does not usually listen to this style of R&B, “Take Me Apart” suffers from oversaturation of the same smooth R&B sound and may end up gradually turning into background noise. While each track has obviously had a lot of time spent on it, there may not be enough variety in the track list to keep newcomers interested. Kelela’s work may seem fresh and innovative to some, but monotonous to others. It is all a matter of personal taste and whether or not the listener is in the audience Kelela is writing for.
Photo provided by fuseboxradio via flickr