If Cut 4 Me, the first mixtape from the D.C-born and L.A.-based singer Kelela, worked as a simple production showcase for the various names associated with the dance label Fade To Mind, it would be well worth hearing. The Brooklyn producer Kingdom started the label, and he’s part of a set of like-minded forward-thinking dance music types who, collectively, have a really interesting thing going on right now. Kingdom’s sound is based in classic body-jacking old-school house music, but it’s got a design-minded sparseness to it, and he also takes stylistic cues from elsewhere: From floaty sci-fi R&B, from grime, from the British pirate-radio bass music that we were calling dubstep before Skrillex happened. His best tracks are absolute bangers, but they don’t just smash through speakers; they have a way of hovering in the air. And the other producers from his crew — Girl Unit, Bok Bok, Nguzunguzu, Jam City — all work some variation on that same stew of influences. And so it would be a smart idea to find a singer who could work as a vehicle for their production ideas and then to use that singer’s album as a sort of label sampler. But Cut 4 Me isn’t that album; Kelela is too dominant a singer, and in any case Cut 4 Me isn’t really a dance album. It’s an extremely smart and idiosyncratic R&B record, and it belongs entirely to Kelela, not to her collaborators.
In interviews, Kelela talks a lot about her ’90s R&B influences — “I would like to do Brandy but weirder,” she told FACT — but her two greatest influences come from just outside that universe. Groove Theory’s Amel Larrieux is a soul-jazz singer whose greatest asset was her otherworldly poise, and Kelela used to drive from D.C. to New York and record her shows on a MiniDisc player. You can hear some of Larrieux’s poise in Kelela’s delivery: The precise diction, the icy directness that comes through even in her sighs, the refusal to display her technique in showy ways that don’t serve the songs she’s singing. And Kelela also cites Little Dragon, whose twitchy future-pop manage to sound boutique-level fashionable and deeply idiosyncratic at the same time. Singer Yukimi Nagano always sounds at ease in her band’s jittery, uneasy music, and so maybe that’s her influence at work when Kelela deftly navigates the globs of bass and synth that the Fade To Mind people throw at her, treating these sounds like they’re no big deal.
It helps that the tape’s producers refuse to bulldoze Kelela with their sound, instead building their tracks up around her voice, playing to her strengths. The tempos never climb high enough to become the focal point, and the tracks leave plenty of empty space for her to navigate. “Keep It Cool” ends with Kelela and Jam City’s unearthly bip-boop synths in a sort of call-and-response dialogue, two shivery sounds circling and complementing each other. Nguzunguzu’s “Enemy” track feels like a bass-music take on cluttered, aggressive Southern-rap fight-music sounds, and it draws out the fiercest edges of Kelela’s voice. Bok Bok’s beat for “A Lie” is nothing but moody Fender Rhodes, birdsong sound-effects, and occasional life-support-machine pings, and it offers some indication of what acid jazz might sound like in the post-xx era.
It’s a tricky dance that Kelela and her collaborators do here. They offer up these gorgeous, of-the-moment sounds, but they also generally stay the hell out of Kelela’s way. And Kelela takes these tracks, which are often so cold and so sparse, and finds a way to give them emotional resonance, to turn them into actual songs. The result: An album of top-shelf makeout music that sounds like it comes from the very near future.
Download Cut 4 Me here.