“Hold up, wait / You fucking with my groove,” Kelela murmurs on “Frontline,” the opening track from her new album Take Me Apart. For Kelela, that is a deep, deep transgression. There is not a lot that can fuck with her groove. Kelela’s groove is an endlessly renewable resource. When the singer first crossed our radar four years ago, it was with Cut 4 Me, the mixtape where she sang over the jagged and futuristic beats from the Fade To Mind braintrust: Kingdom, Jam City, Bok Bok, those guys. Those producers all made music that sounded new and alien. Their beats on Cut 4 Me were full of empty space and echolocation pings and thundering, off-kilter drums. That music made for an inhospitable landscape, a place where human sentiment might go to die. But over those tracks, Kelela found ways to broadcast personality. She was bold and slick and sexy and deep, and she was able to bend those tracks to suit her needs. She found her groove. Now, four years later, she’s finally releasing what’s technically her first album, since Cut 4 Me was a mixtape and 2015’s staggering Hallucinogen was an EP. And while she spends the LP singing over things that theoretically could fuck with her groove, that groove remains unfucked.
The Kelela of Take Me Apart is the same sort of singer as the one we met on Cut 4 Me. Her voice is soft, airy, conversational. She tried a lot of different styles, including jazz, before settling into her current sound, and you can hear echoes of jazz in her phrasing, in the idiosyncratic but intuitive ways that she puts lines together. She’s not a club singer; she doesn’t howl. Instead, she deals in intricate and intimate coos, in conspiratorial whispers. And she’s working with a lot of the same people as she was years ago. Kingdom, Jam City, and Bok Bok all contributed to the album, as did old collaborators like Arca and Ariel Rechtshaid. (Romy Madley Croft of the xx, Kelea’s tourmates, also co-wrote a couple of songs. The amount of sheer talent on the album is nuts.) But Kelela’s not the same artist as the one we met four years ago. Her groove has grown deeper.
Where the sound on Cut 4 Me — and, to a lesser extent, on Hallucinogen — was spartan and unforgiving, she’s working from a completely different template on Take Me Apart. She’s working with lush, miasmic sounds, sinking deep into them rather than floating overtop. Her drums still pulse and skitter, but her drums aren’t really a focus anymore. Instead, her voice joins all these layers of sound, these thick sonic mists. On “Enough,” producer Arca creates a pillowy bed out of gasping multitracked vocals. “Onandon,” another Arca track, builds an ambient symphony out of hiccuping human voices, some of which are so processed that they sound robotic. “LMK,” with its murmuring bass tones and gurgling synth melodies, is like a scrambled text that Prince has sent us from beyond the grave. Closing track “Altadena” is probably the most purely gorgeous thing that Kelela has ever sung, like something that some faraway society might beam back to us if all it picked up on intergalactic radio waves was SWV and ’90s Michael Jackson. The album isn’t as immediately arresting as Kelela’s past two records, but it’s deeper and headier. And if you give it time, you can lose yourself in it completely.
And Kelela uses those new sounds to tell old stories. Lyrically, Take Me Apart is an album about relationships, about the complicated things that can happen when complicated people try to understand each other. There’s sex on Take Me Apart, and there’s impatience. Impatience is a big theme, Kelela waiting around for prospective partners to pick up on whatever vibe she’s sending out. Sometimes, she can get frustrated over playing those games with people: “Did you think you’re my ride home, baby? / Cuz my girls are parked behind.” Sometimes, she can find exhilaration in the way those power dynamics work, in being the one in control: “You’re in a tough position / I put you there / Truth or dare.” And sometimes, she’s despondent, fed up with heartbreak and bullshit: “Though I’m in love with it, I amputate / I care enough not to keep you around,” “One look at you and I turn to dust.”
These are layered, complicated lines, and she’s singing them over layered, complicated music. The way those two things feed into each other is what makes Take Me Apart such a towering achievement of an album. It’s a hall of mirrors, a mental trap. It plays on the sort of feelings you might feel if you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone complicated, someone you’ve had to work to figure out — and since all people are complicated, that means it plays on what you might feel in any relationship. On the title track, Kelela warns, “Don’t say you’re in love / Until you learn to take me apart.” But you can’t take her apart. You can’t even fuck with her groove.
Take Me Apart is out 10/6 on Warp.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Wolf Parade’s big return Cry Cry Cry.
• Liam Gallagher’s inevitable solo debut As You Were.
• Marilyn Manson’s guttural seether Heaven Upside Down.
• The Weather Station’s gorgeous, considered self-titled album.
• Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s strange, shimmering The Kid.
• Alex Lahey’s fun, beautifully written debut I Love You Like A Brother.
• Citizen’s churning, cinematic punker As You Please.
• Weaves’ giddy, passionate indie rocker Wide Open.
• Seattle punk supergroup Who Is She?’s debut Seattle Gossip.
• Yumi Zouma’s incandescent indie popper Willowbank.
• Deradoorian’s experimental popper Eternal Recurrence.
• Bloc Party member Kele Okereke’s new solo LP Fatherland.
• Cults’ sharp, colorful indie-popper Offering.
• Blis.’s slow-burning debut No One Loves You.
• Fuck Button Andrew Hung’s damaged postpunk solo debut Realisationship.
• Caribou side project Daphni’s minimal-dance collection Joli Mai.
• Antwon’s West Coast dirtbag-rap LP Sunnyvale Gardens.
• Blue Hawaii’s woozily slick Tenderness.
• Man Man/Unicorns side project Mister Heavenly’s new one Boxing The Moonlight.
• Sound Of Ceres’ gausy dream-popper The Twin.
• Strange Ranger’s bummed-out indie rocker Daymoon.
• EVHA’s wild, eclectic self-titled debut.
• Mark Kozelek’s new self-titled collaborative album with Ben Boye and Jim White.
• The Darkness’ codpiece-rocker Pinewood Smile.
• Ducktails’ post-Real Estate album Jersey Devil.
• Gwen Stefani’s holiday collection You Make It Feel Like Christmas.
• The DIY benefit compilation Exploding In Records: Live At Shea Stadium.
• Mirah’s Sundial EP.
• Carla Dal Forno’s The Garden EP.