R&B singer Kelela’s debut album, released 2 years after the critically acclaimed Hallucinogen EP, scales back her sound into the moody and avant-garde scene of alt-R&B to offer up a truly haunting and innovative sound. Said to be heavily influenced by Bjork, Kelela’s vocals are frequently backed up by glitchy electronic beats, using her characteristically low alto register to tap into a darker side of romance.
Take Me Apart is an incredibly ambitious project that doesn’t always connect. It is certainly not as immediately attention-grabbing as her previous work, but there are many things to be very excited by, especially as this is only a debut album.
The project does have some very innovative instrumentals, mostly provided by an unexpected combination of experimental electronic artist Arca and the award-winning and consistently incredible Ariel Rechtshaid. As we are in a time where we’ve reached “peak trap”, it feels like some of these beats are the next step in the equation, what it will sound like in the future. We have the rolling hi-hats and 808 bass, but they are more sparse over instrumentals that fill up all the space of the track, shifting, changing and building.
Kelela builds an overall air of genrelessness here, with a sonic surprise almost every time the track shifts over – I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear something like the poppier synth chords of “Waitin” so early on in the tracklisting. Still, Kelela manages to bridge the gap between sounds with her strong vocal performances, quick to carve out her own clear artistry in a sea of rising similar artists.
Emotionally potent and possessing a very impressive range which she frequently utilizes to decorate these tracks with beautiful higher trills, Kelela’s approach to romance is hopeful, cynical and tinged with darker overtones. She gets writing assistance from The xx’s Romy Madley Croft on “Jupiter”, and her deeply personal lyrical musings are equally engaging as Croft’s work.
Opening track “Frontline” is one of the strongest, bridging the gap between Kelela’s older and newer approaches perfectly. The lengthy track speeds through a few different sections, as we get an introduction to the full capabilities of her voice in a slower segment before exploding into a Beyonce-esque chorus with some quick rhythms and heavy percussion.
“LMK” follows along the same lines, driven by a strong boom-bap beat and catchy handclaps. Kelela delivers her catchiest – and sassiest – chorus line yet before the song falls away into a softer-toned electronic paradise that could be mistaken for a Cashmere Cat track and a spoken-word breakdown. In her lyrics, she presents a familiar situation – desperately wondering what her partner is looking for, while hiding behind a well-presented façade of not caring either way. By the time she starts hitting those whistle notes to close out the track, we’ve explored the full range of the many impressive things Kelela is capable of. This is how we bring all the vastly different sounds presented here together in a way that makes sense.
One of the things I liked the most about Kelela’s past work, especially on the Hallucinogen EP’s best songs, was her snappy rhythms and soaring choruses. Here, she takes a step back into slower, unassuming alt-R&B on about half of these tracks. The style does succeed at putting the spotlight on her unique and impressive voice, but creates a disconnect between her vocal style and instrumental. A song like “Enough” is a perfect example of Kelela’s execution coming up short of her ambitious goals, her slower vocals in the verses failing to contrast well with the explosive, tribal beat and crowded chorus.
While the album is a consistently engaging and surprising sonic experience throughout, I found that upon my second listen while writing the review I remembered almost nothing about it. Many of Kelela’s innovations are almost too subtle – enough for a quick double-take but not enough to distinguish one track from the other.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were times when I found tracks like “Take Me Apart” too crowded, as the track quickly shifts between an almost drum-n-bass percussion line and quickly echoing synth pattern to a segment full of interlocking and overlapping backing vocals. The strange decisions on this album continue as two of its best tracks in “Jupiter” and “SOS”, each featuring Kelela tapping into a smoother tone in her range and offering up some classic 90s R&B sounds, both don’t even reach two and a half minutes.
Despite its quirks, Take Me Apart winds up being rather similar to a lot of alt-R&B projects out right now, and that can drag it down at times. However, on almost every track here there is an extra flourish of vocal ability, or a futuristic instrumental, that shines a light on how special of an artist Kelela might still become.
Favourite Tracks: LMK, Better, Frontline, S.O.S., Jupiter
Least Favourite Track: Enough