album review

Kelela Knows How to Interrupt a Groove

Photo: Warp Records

In our consumerist dystopia, where the spoils of the day are often won by the boldest players in the data business and corporations adopt the language of community activism (but not all of the causes célèbres), mass culture feels as obvious and inescapable as geosystems. The American culture war is like a brand rivalry gone nuclear, the blood-and-guts expression of an identity molded by Whopper detours and Genesis doing what Nintendidn’t. It’s getting dicey to be different, wondering whether everyone else feels suffocated by the schisms, constricting social mores, and broken allyship pledges. How do you chart an intriguing course in a sea of sameness?

A decade or so ago, when flashing a streak of musical ingenuity within a mile of the radio netted you signifiers like “alternative” and “mysterious,” telemarketer Kelela Mizanekristos wrecked her car and spent the insurance money making a mixtape. She’d dabbled in a few different genres already, having grown up “listening to R&B, jazz, and Björk,” expressing the love of standards she picked up from her father in a stint as a cafe singer and later joining the rock band Dizzy Spells. But interest from listeners was elusive. It wasn’t until she released “Go All Night (Let Me Roll),” from her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, that her art started to connect, her rich vibrato buffeted by a maelstrom of clattering hi hats and diced up vocals.

Kelela workshopped new songs, aided by the Los Angeles indie dance label Fade to Mind as she played into her wide-ranging interests. Her effortless electronic R&B curios gestured to the abrasive sound design of the underground and the tuneful ease of contemporary soul. The title track “Cut 4 Me” sways like a forgotten synth-pop ballad torn apart; the kick drum in “Send Me Out” keeps perfect time, even though it sounds like the kit’s being thrown down stairs. These were tiny revolutions, soulful excursions into dance music in the years where artists caught hell for EDM moves, after “Turn Up the Music” but before “Break My Soul.” Kelela sang of the intricacies that keep romance fresh; that careful deliberation has since become the story of her career. On her 2017 debut album, Take Me Apart, she made pretty songs from odd materials, deconstructing dubstep wubs in “Blue Light” and using the Roland synth that gave “Jupiter” its name — an instrument famous for its blaring leads — to play sultry chiptune instead.

We’ve discussed Black ingenuity under duress, how vital subgenres of electronic music were birthed in working class metropolitan communities. But it’s white artists who get accolades for the stuff. It wasn’t until this year that a Black woman was awarded for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the Grammys. Booking Black dance artists has been a trouble spot for ages, enough for a “Make Techno Black Again” initiative to pop up a few years ago. This week, Kelela puts out her long-gestating sophomore album, Raven; as she worked on it, she shared reference materials with her collaborators that included writing on these subjects. She’s very serious about this: In 2020, she sent letters out to peers and business partners stating her needs and asking them to take stock of what they were doing for Black women in entertainment. She worried that the gesture would make her seem difficult. Black women’s assertiveness in the face of adversity is often pawned off as rage. Nonetheless, she said responses to her letter, or lack thereof, would later inspire her to end her publishing contract with Sony.

Raven sweeps the spectrum of emotions between anticipation and frustration. It hosts a dozen different ways to voice your intentions, whether you aim to invite a person to bed or eject them from your life. The songs about pining for physical connection feel realistic and lived-in, and the slipperiness of the sexual power dynamics subtly but poignantly queer. The artist sounds as if she relishes subverting prescribed gender roles. She also sounds like she’s documenting the annoying responses she’s heard after pledging to live more freely and comfortably. Last September, Kelela shared that she’d been reading bell hooks’s book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, and Raven’s stream of reassuring whispers — “You love it when I’m comin on strong”; “Put the sword down, you can’t fight it”; “Open up, babe, I am the one” — nudge their intended audiences toward a more confident expression of sexual desire. At other times, they take the drained and resolute tone of a person growing weary of the perpetual dance. Like SZA’s SOS, Raven’s aquatic sonics and references are manifestations of an underlying theme of romantic drift. But where SZA uses her latest album to showcase her ease in adapting to genres, Kelela is treating musical traditions like flotsam and jetsam, the mess surrounding a shipwreck. She picks over pieces of familiar structures, figuring out how they can be repurposed at sea.

Cycling through hazy, minimalist R&B, house music, and Baltimore club jams, Raven teases out the beauty in decay and detuned synthesizers. The new songs make wise use of a versatile bench of collaborators including Asmara from Fade to Mind’s NGUZUNGUZU, Philly DJ and producer LSDXOXO, German ambient duo OCA, and Toronto DJ BAMBII. Together, they conjure an apocalyptic scene, an inundated landscape where the detritus of the old world juts out like a reminder of the people we used to be. Raven understands its place in the pantheon of Black art, how the vitality of dance courses through Ernie Barnes’s The Sugar Shack and Funkadelic’s “One Nation Under a Groove” and You Got Served. It joins the line of Black futurist art and electronic music, from Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe, Solange, and Beyoncé. Kelela pitches herself somewhere between Drexciya and Aaliyah. “Let It Go,” a jam about abandoning anxiety to embrace trust, stacks brittle piles of sounds, building to a booming beat only to send it crashing back into rushing waters. “Fooley” and “Sorbet” dabble in the moonlit confessions of mid-2010s Drake hits, but the drums keep falling apart, and the synths croak and bray like living creatures. The title track spends three minutes noodling with gliding keyboard notes before dropping a massive beat that immediately melts into “Bruises,” which could be this album’s most conventional dance floor offering — if it weren’t for the synth line that keeps poking into the mix, clashing with the other melodies.

Raven is as notable for its tunefulness as for all the ways it corrodes and complicates its hooks. As the artist attempts to resuscitate dying love connections, the disorienting noises that envelope her warm vocals imagine a race against time. Kelela is literally going under, melting into the echoing keys of the droning “Holier” and the cavernous bass and string notes in “Divorce.” Raven wages war on a world that wants the artist to ask for less, to take up less space in the culture. Kelela is painstaking, building albums out like someone who isn’t sure she will get another chance to hold the floor. She seeks agency in inaccessibility and quietude. She wants to bring you along for the ride, if you can muster the love and honesty she requires. And if you can’t, “Bruises” sends a warning: “I changed my fate, and my girl did the same / And we came to destroy.”

Kelela Knows How to Interrupt a Groove