Kelela Is R&B’s Futurist

Kelela makes music that lives in intersections: Sometimes she sounds like ’90s R&B, sometimes she veers progressively electronic, but it all blends together into an amorphous, exciting new form of sound. It makes perfect sense when you hear it but feels slippery when you try to pin it to any specific character, and she’s still working out how to describe and discuss the music she makes.

“Me and my friends had this discussion asking, ‘What genre do you claim on iTunes?’ And I think, for each of my peers and I, there’s a few that we could legitimately choose from — because a lot of our work is intersectional — but there’s none that fit perfectly,” she says. Like her previous projects — the mixtape Cut 4 Me, and the EP Hallucinogen — her new album, Take Me Apart, defies easy definition. Kelela likes it that way, even if the music industry — obsessed with rankings, categorization, marketability — does not. She’s making music to “hybridize space,” she says, using her phrase of choice to describe her music as a place “primarily for black girls to get their life,” before adding, “but everyone else can come to the party too.”

Bank Head,” her Solange-approved single (she included the track on her compilation album Saint Heron in 2013), was how Kelela’s music found a wider audience. Take Me Apart is full of songs like what made that one great: equal parts sexy and mercurial, expansive and intimate — these are tracks ready for tears or twerking. Her smooth harmonies glide between the end of one relationship and the beginning of a new love. In the middle, there’s an aside devoted to a hazy, hedonistic return to single life (punctuated by “LMK,” the album’s throbbing lead single). “[The album is] speaking to the experience of devotion,” she says. “For me, that’s been the thing to try to navigate: How do I go there fully? How do I allow myself to experience love fully without feeling jaded? How do I go into the next experience as a full experience?”

On Take Me Apart, Kelela is playing with her sound, pushing herself to be bigger and more ambitious — not just louder, but more layered. She’s singing and arranging her music from a place of certainty that was hard-fought: “There’s a lot of conversation with my collaborators about what holes exist in the world in terms of intersectional, genre-bending music,” she says. “Those discussions often went into overtly political discussions about sound and how certain people gravitate towards it and how we can purposefully challenge.”

Kelela talked to Vulture about making music outside the confines of a single genre, rejecting the music industry’s indie canon, and what happens when an album cycle coincides with a relationship cycle.

When did you start working on Take Me Apart?
It’s hard to point to the impetus, or the beginning of it, because it began as I was working on the mixtape. With certain producers or certain songs, there were things that felt too epic or too album-y. Some of the songs on the album are actually from before I made the mixtape, or during [work on] the mixtape. So it spans over that large of a period of time, but the process of writing was highly collaborative.

You can hear that, I think — Listening to Take Me Apart, the sounds feel much more ambitious than anything on Hallucinogen or Cut 4 Me.
I worked with a lot of different people and the sound I’m trying to create is a synthesis of a few things. There isn’t a singular producer or artist that embodies that intersection [that I want] and the way that I hear it. So, it sort of took me bringing people together that aren’t necessarily a part of the same musical world, I guess.

How do you decide which producers to work with or who to collaborate with?
I worked with a lot of the producers that I worked with on the mixtape, along with new people. Essentially keeping that sound sort of centered around a club lens: the lens of somebody who listens to club music, the lens of somebody who loves vocals and listens to the tradition of R&B vocals, the lens of somebody who listens to gospel and jazz from a very nerdy place. The other criteria for me was that the songwriting is just as strong as everything else. That for me was what I was trying to do and I worked with a lot of people to make that happen and executive produced the entire thing through them.

In July you told the Ringer that you write for black girls, which — as a black girl — I loved. While this work isn’t overtly political, it does feel radical to hear these sounds coming from a black woman.
When I say that, I really mean that when I’m thinking about lyrics and when I’m thinking about sonics, I’m thinking about the black women who have never really felt perfectly shaped for the spaces that have been made for them. Or the black women who are trying to fit into something. I wanted to create a space for us to not be subject to any confines, especially when it comes to sound. I guess for me, those are the politics behind the record. That is what I’m trying to do.

Depending on where you are in your career — who you’re already speaking to, who you’d like to be speaking to, etc. — we decide what genre we’re going to be for each record on a case-by-case basis. It’s pretty strategic, you know? And crafty. I guess this is one of the ways [my politics] comes out: how you talk about sound can intersect with your politics as an artist.

The last couple of projects that I’ve chosen are electronic, and that’s because I want to say that that’s black too. Sometimes it’s purposeful for me to be R&B, and call it R&B. But sometimes it’s critical for me to be electronic music in the same way that you’re digesting, you know, heady experimental music.

Is that what Take Me Apart is?
It’s the place that I made this from, and also, I guess, there’a tenderness paired with that. This for me is highly political, just not overtly political maybe. The sound of my politics is very much inside that record. It was very difficult to make because the feedback from peers, from people in the industry, from people outside — everybody falls in line in terms of grouping and who likes what and who thinks this needs work. It’s really interesting because that’s when I know I don’t feel here or there.

This almost feels like a philosophy or semiotics seminar — the politics of sound, how we ascribe meaning to genre …
It is. But in terms of choosing which songs would be on the record, it’s very strategic. It’s based on my own feelings about the songs, but also about creating some type of balance where every single type of listener is, sort of, equally gratified and challenged at the same time. So nobody feels all the way too comfortable, but everybody gets their moment. Everybody has a track or more than one track that makes them feel like “this is my shit” and “this is home to me.” This is what I consider to be zero.

For me, this record has been hard to make because I don’t have a singular zero, meaning, there’s not a song where I’m not stretching. The vocals are a constant — no matter what I sing over, I sing the way that I sing, and it comes from this R&B space. That is the anchor.

I do think it’s possible to go too far, and you lose somebody. At that point, it’s not challenging the listener, it just stops resonating. What I’ve been trying to find, and what my collaborators have been helping me find, is a place between those two places. The place where somebody is still listening, still intrigued. They might be squinting their eyes, but they want to keep listening.

I like that you describe it as challenging the listener, because that was my first reaction. There were songs I connected to immediately, and songs that took me a couple of days to hear exactly what was happening and exactly how much I loved it. It works.
That means so much. I literally was thinking about you, about all of us that don’t fit into what’s prescribed.

But how does this work in the music industry, which is obsessed with categorizing and labeling and tracking artists?
I don’t know. My first reaction to being pigeonholed, or pushed into certain confines, is to be like “No, I’m the opposite,” you know? Like, don’t put me in a stereotypical black-girl category, because I’m not like that, I’m doing this thing over here. For me that’s essentially whiteness, and not just black girls, but black people in indie music [have had to] reject a lot of essential black shit. Things that are considered canon in black culture are the things that people wanting to reject those stereotypes would initially go straight towards. I find that interesting because it’s a pretty pervasive dynamic. I don’t find that particular to me. It’s something that a lot of people don’t talk about cause I think a lot of black people are still in that place.

A lot of people of color in the music industry are still more interested in embracing things that are considered white canon, and looking radical. Like when people point to punk in the indie world: If you point to the history of punk as what you see as your legacy, that’s more prized and praised.

Before my mixtape, I didn’t have enough language to describe what I was doing or trying to do. It was not cool to sing in the style of R&B. R&B wasn’t cool in that white guys weren’t putting R. Kelly songs on in the middle of parties. It just wasn’t happening. What I’m saying is there’s a way that you look radical when you embrace some white shit. The next place for me, the place I take a lot of comfort or solace in, is the place that is considered to essentially be black. I’m finding out what part of punk culture or white indie culture I actually still want to hold onto. What are the values? What are the contributions that I actually like? and it not coming from a place of desperation or wanting to be embraced or wanting approval, essentially.

So internally, you’re deciding what parts of the white canon and indie canon that you actually value, not just what the industry values because it’s understood to be white and popular?
Yeah. There may be other people who never felt that need to initially accept these trends, but I grew up around white people, and then I went to a very white college. In the music industry you can’t create success without having to engage a white man. It’s just not possible. Whether it’s executives, A&Rs, and the people that hold the key to your paper, inevitably, you’ll be met with whiteness. And you have to decide, I guess, how you’re going to deal, how you’re going to engage, and how much to engage? And how much to reject?

I see.
This is basically [how it is] for every black artist, right now especially. When we get together, this is the conversation: how our names and faces are used to create a sense of diversity or progressiveness, how we’re going to strategically respond to and deal with it. Sorry — it’s really hard to explain, but I guess with regards to whiteness it’s always been challenging to figure out how to engage. I think a lot of us, after immersing ourselves in a really white space, can feel burned, kind of like we subjected ourselves to a lot of abuse.

And why would I ever do that again? What I’m trying to find is, like, take the shit that does matter and leave the shit that doesn’t matter. For me this is a complex and layered thing, one what I wanted to articulate musically: How much I love things that are seemingly disparate, or made to seem disparate. And how, inside my heart and inside my body, they exist quite harmoniously and they make perfect sense together. This is basically what I’ve been trying to articulate with the record. There’s also the sense of wanting to create epic soundtracks for black girls’ experience.

This discourse feels, like, bell hooks–level.
[Laughs] I tried to mastermind and engineer something that would do a trick you know? But like a positive and wholesome trick to make listeners more like who they are, make them more like themselves. It’s a purposeful scam — I want to use wordplay, use sound, use my voice, swirl it all up to make something that you have to grapple with, or try and make sense of, you know? I want, I prefer, an eye squint as opposed to a smile.

You said you’re stretching on this album, so are you still squinting your eye when you’re hearing some of these songs?
No, they make perfect sense to me. I just don’t know know if anyone is going to feel that, too. The thing that was challenging for me was figuring out what was the original version of each song. There’s just so many permutations of each song that could live its own beautiful life. Literally for each song, I tried to construct them and compose them in a way that was so rich you could take it to piano. And even just on piano, it will still sound like a sick song. That made it kinda hard to pinpoint how each song should be produced.

I think I got the most purposeful permutations of each song, but trust and believe there are like four other versions of each song waiting to live their life. That’s the beauty of the remix for me: We never have to decide. What I’m saying is the complex nature of the music and how I see music in general made it really difficult to decide how to present each song. But now that I’ve done that it, it feels like the perfect thing to represent myself. Not that it’s perfect in the world, but it accurately represents what I’m trying to say.

How long did it take you to make Take Me Apart when every song has all these different versions?
It took too long. From my first album, I experientially learned that I know what my shit is and I know what I’m doing. I trust myself on another level that I haven’t ever before. That experience was me telling myself, “Kels, you said it was A in the beginning, and then you went to B, you entertained his idea on C, his idea on D, you tried her idea on F, and it’s actually just A.” I had to go through all that madness so that the next time I could be like, “No, I’m pretty sure it’s this. Thank you everybody for your input but this is what’s happening.”

When I hire people I’m looking for excellence. But at this point, the first thing that I’m asking is, “I need you to name ten sick people, but I need you to do due diligence and research to find women of color who are excellent at those things first.” And if I can’t find a woman of color, I will a find a black person, a black man. And if I can’t find that, I will find a person of color. Literally moving down the list so that white men are the last on my list to hire. They’re just so pervasive in the context [of who to hire] already.

Is making so many different versions of every song an essential part of your process?
Next time, I feel like I’m going to be way more concise in my process.

Will you ever release those other versions, though? I want them.
Well, girl, they will exist. One of the ways I want those other versions of the song is through a remix project that I’d like to put together down the line. It means a lot to me to be able to bring back a certain type of remix, like a Mariah remix, where you make a whole other song.

Like how her original “Fantasy,” and the ODB remix sounded like two separate songs.
Yes. This was a thing that was happening for a long time, and was so essential to my music experience: I got a second version, and ODB is on it. Mariah is one of the queens of that. Destiny’s Child, too — there’s so many more. Maybe it has to do with a different time in the music industry, where there was a lot more money to go back into the studio another time. Now, a remix means some guy is going to sit at a computer and rearrange an a capella over a track.

Right, it’s not a new arrangement.
No, it’s not. So, I’d really to do that. I want to bring that back.

Take Me Apart sounds like it’s coming from a place of such personal certainty, like you know exactly what you want out of your relationships and your sound. How did you reach this place?
Yeah, it’s certain but I guess I wanna let everyone know that I wasn’t always certain. That’s essential to who I am as an artist: I definitely want to be known for big ideas, but I’d also like you to know that I’ve found that place through a lot of struggle.

I think there’s been a vision that’s been dispensed of artists as crazy geniuses. That is not how it is for me. It doesn’t just ooze out of me. I mean, I’m talented and I’m comfortable saying that on some level, but it’s important for me to tell everybody that my confidence comes through being able to not feel perfect, but that I’m still gonna go onstage and be public-facing. You want to be able to believe that some people are naturally just jumping out the womb just killing it, but some people have to bust their ass — try something else first, then try this and be challenged, think you don’t know shit, think that you’re a piece of shit — and then break out of that feeling. There were plenty of times in the making of this record where I guess I felt like, do I know anything? There are so many of these moments. So I want to create a more realistic picture.

Are you telling the story of one relationship with this album?
I put the album in a chronology of events, so how it kind of happened. So the first song, we’re meeting for the first time. The second song you’re seeing them again. The third song you’re deeper in it than you were before. “Take Me Apart,” and then you move on to like “Enough,” which is like I’m really really done with you, and you break up with them the second time, the final time. “Jupiter,” you’re by yourself. “Better” is reconciliation after a breakup. “Let Me Know” is the beginning of a new era, a beginning of a new feeling, when you’re single. After that it sort of goes through meeting someone new again, falling in love again, and finding yourself — still very deep — but a wiser approach.

An approach that’s more informed by the relationship that just ended.
Yes! More informed through this experience, and the weariness we approach the next relationship with. All the songs after “Let Me Know” are sort of imbued with that feeling that you know how this goes.

So this album tells the story of two relationships — the first few songs is one as it is ending, the later songs are the beginnings of a new love?
The first ones, yeah, are a previous relationship. It’s basically just the same relationship that the mixtape pulled from. It’s speaking to the experience of devotion. For me, that’s been the thing to try to navigate: How do I go there fully? How do I allow myself to experience love fully without feeling jaded? How do I go into the next experience as a full experience? How can I move forward into something new without holding back, but being wise at the same time? How do I avoid some of the same pitfalls of wearing your heart on your sleeve?

Are you in a relationship now?
No, I’m not. I just broke up with my partner, and that’s what the second half of the record is about.

That makes everything in Take Me Apart more complicated, it sounds like.
They call it an “album cycle,” but it’s really a life cycle. They’ve intersected in a way that is quite literal.

Kelela Is R&B’s Futurist