One of the albums that was on a tiny shortlist for Album Of The Week last week was Unbreakable, the first new Janet Jackson album in eight years. Jackson picked a good moment to come back. Unbreakable is, by her standards, a sweet and personal record, and it reunites her with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the production team who worked with her constantly at her peak. And while the record never goes out of its way to sound contemporary — Jackson is, after all, sadly pretty much the only person hitting Missy Elliott up for a guest verse in 2015 — it’s striking how of-the-moment Jackson sounds. At her ’80s and ’90s peak, Jackson found massive popularity, but she was never exactly a critical favorite. Today, though, the things that critics held against Jackson — her whispery delivery, her sometimes-flirty and sometimes-brazen sexuality, the way the clatter of her state-of-the-art beats would overwhelm her voice — have made her sound mighty prescient. Many of the best and most critically acclaimed R&B or R&B-adjacent singers working today have taken their cues from Jackson; you can hear echoes of her style in Tinashe or FKA twigs or even the Weeknd. And Kelela, the DC-born and LA-based singer who somehow turns oblique dance music into a diaristic personal soundtrack, may be the purest Jackson acolyte we have, though there’s also plenty of Aaliyah and Prince and Aphex Twin and a million other things in her sound. Kelela’s whole style is everything futuristic about Jackson’s pushed even further into the horizon, like Jackson if she was actually living in that spaceship from the “Scream” video. And with her new Hallucinogen EP, Kelela proves that there’s still so much humanity in her warped robo-soul, another thing Jackson was able to convey before the rest of us even knew what that was.
There have been exceptions over the years, but I don’t generally choose EPs as Album Of The Week. It’s not that the EP is a lesser artform than the album; it’s that there are usually so many great full-lengths, and they’re usually more carefully plotted-out and geared toward a larger audience than the EPs. They’re richer texts, and they offer more to talk about. That’s not the case with Hallucinogen. For one thing, I’ve been anticipating this thing more impatiently than I do most albums. Hallucinogen was supposed to come out back in spring, and it was pushed back like crazy for some reason. Other than the odd (great) song or collaboration, it’s the first thing Kelela has done since Cut 4 Me, the staggering breakout mixtape that she released just over two years ago. And it’s also a carefully-assembled cohesive statement. Even though it’s only six tracks long, it’s a concept album. It tells the story of a relationship coming together and breaking apart, and it does it Memento-style, in reverse chronology. So we start out at the sad, cold moment when you finally figure out that it’s time to move on, and we end things with the initial blush of attraction. This should make for a tempestuous piece of music, but Kelela is a reserved singer, and so the mood of the music shifts just slightly from song to song, never compromising the sparse and woozy vibe that Kelela is so good at evoking. And as a record, it takes an important step beyond Cut 4 Me. On Cut 4 Me, Kelela sang over beats from the Night Slugs and Fade To Mind production crews, proving that she could occupy those songs in ways that few singers could. That tape was her proving what she could do with those tracks. But on Hallucinogen, she’s doing something different. She’s showing us who she can be on these tracks.
There’s plenty of sex on Hallucinogen, both in Kelela’s sleepy, murmuring delivery and in the words she’s singing. And it’s interesting the way the sex changes over the course of the EP. “The High” is the track that ends the EP, which means it’s the one that tells of the very beginning of the relationship, and it’s all intrigue and mystery: “Your hands are firm around my waist / They’re moving south, my saving grace.” But by the time she gets to “Gomenasai” (Japanese for “sorry,” apparently, and a song that arrives early in the EP and thus late in the relationship), she’s full-on dominating this other person: “I slam the door / I don’t let you take off your clothes… What’s my name? Better say it twice / You’re my bitch tonight.” It’s something I don’t know if I’ve heard captured in music before: The way sex can turn combative as relationships fall apart, as if the people involved are trying to break through whatever numbness they feel toward one another. And on opening track “A Message,” that numbness takes over completely: “A stillness in your veins… You don’t even see me / Are you even breathing?” (She also paraphrases Prince: “If I was your ex [long pause] girlfriend.”) Kelela is sort of a minimal and conversational singer, even though you can hear, in the rare showy runs she sings, that she can absolutely uncork her gift whenever she wants. So that restraint means that every little gesture — the drawn-out “IIIIII” on “A Message,” the buried-in-the-mix giggle on “Rewind” — has that much stronger of an effect. On the EP’s title track, we hear her voice (and possibly the rest of the track) played backwards, and it’s still evocative. It’s like that’s the only way she can capture the early-attraction bliss, when that gooey glow can go beyond words.
And just as she did on Cut 4 Me, Kelela plays around with some truly strange and spectacular production on Hallucinogen. “A Message” has a spacey, wide-open Arca beat that just pants as a few multi-tracked Kelea voices sigh away underneath everything, sounding like an underwater choir. “Rewind,” which Kelela co-produced with Kingdom and Nugget, has the sort of brisk 808 attack you’d expect to hear in old-school electro or Miami bass. But the drums don’t exactly drive the track. Instead, they’re as much a part of the beat’s texture as the glacial synth figure. “The High” has sub-bass that will annihilate your car speakers, but it’s there to warp the track, not to flesh it out. This is squirming, uncomfortable music, but it’s not detached. It’s fluid and emotional. As instrumentals, the EP would make for a great little compilation of forward-thinking, untethered producers. But Kelela bends and twists these dystopic tracks until they sound completely human. For her, they’re vehicles to tell her story, and I can’t think of another singer who could turn them into that.
Hallucinogen is out 10/9 on Cherry Coffee/Warp.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Dilly Dally’s revved-up noise-pop debut Sore.
• Grimes protege Nicole Dollanganger’s pretty, disturbed Natural Born Losers.
• Saintseneca’s hardy leftist power-popper Such Things.
• Protomartyr’s scrambled, verbose post-punker The Agent Intellect.
• The Game’s guest-heavy comeback The Documentary 2.
• Alex G’s lo-fi pop opus Beach Music.
• Selena Gomez’s probably-going-to-be-fire pop album Revival.
• Feelies frontman Glenn Mercer’s solo LP Incidental Hum.
• Co La’s feverish electronic attack No No.
• Oberhofer’s jangled surf-rocker Chronovision.
• Run Forever’s bleary self-titled DIY rocker.
• Beaten To Death’s sarcastic grindcore mutation Unplugged.
• Operator’s lo-fi, krautrock-addled Puzzlephonics I.
• Kisses’ smooth alt-popper Rest In Paradise.
• Little May’s crisp folker For The Company.
• Beachwood Sparks offshoot GospelbeacH’s sunny, shimmery Pacific Surf Line.
• Mogwai’s career-spanning comp Central Belters.
• Johnny Marr’s live album Adrenaline Baby.
• The Decemberists’ Florasongs EP.
• Weyes Blood’s Cardamom Times EP.
• Zomby’s Let’s Jam EP1 and Let’s Jam EP2.
• Ryan Hemsworth and Lucas’ Taking Flight EP.
• Conner Youngblood’s The Generation Of Lift EP.
• Dreaktrak’s self-titled EP.
• The Microwave and Head North’s split 12″.