Kelela – Raven

It turns out that February 10, 2023 was a pretty great day for celebrated musicians releasing their first body of work since 2017. Joining Paramore but residing at the near complete opposite end of the sonic spectrum, alt-R&B singer Kelela returns for the first time since her hypnotic yet catchy set of tracks on Take Me Apart. Back after so long, her airy and entrancing vocals are still around, but she’s elected to drop most of the poppier elements that characterized her early career, opting instead for a more immersive, ambient and free-flowing experience. With acts like Kaytranada and Shygirl in the mix behind the scenes, Raven’s seamless transitions often make the album feel like an hour-long journey that you don’t want to leave – though as the track lengths extend, the repetition of some motifs might also leave some listeners itching to get to the next stage of it. There’s not a ton of variety to be found here, unlike her previous projects, but it’s undeniable that Kelela took a more experimental swing and succeeded.

While some listeners were initially confused when opening track “Washed Away” was also the lead single, it works much better now that we know it’s the introduction. As Kelela enters the track scatting, it feels like the beginning of the hypnotic spell that she puts us under for the rest of the project, speaking nonsense words and putting listeners under her control. The track is mostly made up of freeform vocalizations and the odd stunning belted note, the synths behind her making this listener picture her as the master of an ice palace. Funnily enough, one of the earliest tracks on the project is titled “Let It Go.” Another highly minimalistic track, there’s not much grounding it past a 2-note synth riff in the background, instrumental flourishes popping in and out. It feels, again, like everything is at Kelela’s command – the percussion pops up when she sounds a little more hopeful that the relationship she’s describing will work out, for example. It’s a fascinating experience, but after a track like “Happy Ending,” it’s the first sign that the project might be a little sleepy. Immediately preceding it, “Happy Ending” is a bit of an outlier on this album, with an almost drum n’ bass flavour as Kelela heads to the dancefloor to lure an old crush back. The only truly radio-ready moment here – complete with fun moments of the instrumental cutting out and a cheekier performance than we’re used to, Kelela has a bit of fun before reverting back to her usual ethereal goddess vibe.

The themes continue onto “On The Run,” a nearly 5-minute track where Kelela lets this mystery partner know that she’s totally available – even calling back to one of her breakout hits, “All The Way Down” – if they wanted to make a move. As the instrumental tones down for a bridge as she describes what might happen if the lights were to get low, the creeping synths continue to combine with some sparse but thudding bass hits. Backing herself up on one of the more memorable melodies here with some impressive runs, we get some phone noises through the last minute as it transitions to “Missed Call.” Incorporating the noises subtly into the instrumental, however, is about all the excitement the track has to offer. Slightly before the halfway point of the album, it becomes clear that Kelela has a firm grasp of her sound, offering more instrumental combos of ambient tones and clubby percussion and similar melodic spaces in the choruses. Out of all the tracks that fall into similar territory, however, “Contact” is one of the best. In a more house-oriented space, it’s one of the more winning combos of the lighter and heavier instrumental sides, giving equal weight to both. The track “Closure” features the album’s only guest, rapper Rahrah Gabor, who fits in underneath the trap beat with a low, percussive voice. You’d think that the energies wouldn’t quite match here, but with how forward some of Kelela’s lyrics are, the two complement each other well on one of the album’s most soulful songs.

Serving as the album’s midpoint, “Fooley” represents the extent of Kelela’s experimentation here. With some cinematic, Inception-trailer-style sounds and a vocal so muted you can’t really make out what she’s saying, it’s all about the big, echoing percussion here as Kelela’s voice bubbles to the surface a couple times, saying something about “submerged sound.” It leads into “Holier,” the sparsest song on the whole project that extends a little too long and sends listeners back to sleep after waking them up with the interlude. The title track “Raven” starts off similarly minimal, with only a single synth siren slowly undulating back and forth, but something about Kelela singing about fighting through the pain and coming out strong, a raven reborn, makes her performance a lot more compelling than its predecessor. Increased vocal layering and piano usher in the back half, building up to a beat drop that sends it home. The track “Bruises” is directly tacked onto the end, as melodic motifs from “Raven” continue on and intersperse with the beat. Like many tracks here, it goes full throttle on leaning into hypnotic and tribal sounds. It’s easy to get lost in, but not incredibly rewarding for an active listener.

Leading us even further into a section of the album where the tracks could essentially be a cappellas, “Sorbet” is the longest track here and it certainly feels like it. Again, however, it fares slightly better as Kelela adds some lyrical content about enjoying an intertwined, perfect relationship with no beginning and no end, something that the ambient track mirrors. Unfortunately, however, the next track is titled “Divorce.” It’s not something that Kelela has too much to say about, except for a couple lyrics evoking the myth of Sisyphus and his boulder, instead letting the sparse instrumentation do all the talking. “Enough For Love” picks the energy back up for a final, poppier tune that evokes elements of 90s R&B with some twinkly effects and an upbeat, rhythmic central melody, Kelela double-checking if someone is tough enough to handle everything that love is about to throw at them, before “Far Away” releases listeners from under the spell with what is essentially an exact copy of the intro, now longer and with less lyrics.

As the Internet’s Busiest Music Nerd said in his own review, it would have been a shame if Kelela disappeared for nearly six years, only to return with more of the same – regardless of how good her previous projects were – and she definitely accomplished the kind of interesting new direction that warrants the time off. Even if a couple more structured tracks to break it up would have been appreciated, Kelela reminds us not to forget that she’s one of the most fascinating artists in the R&B space.

Favourite Tracks: Happy Ending, On The Run, Raven, Closure, Contact

Least Favourite Track: Holier

Score: 7/10


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