It doesn’t feel like Kelela has been away for five and a half years. Maybe that’s just because the rest of the world hasn’t quite caught up with her yet. On her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, Kelela Mizanekristos established a sound, a mood, and an idea. She sang with soft, yearning power over sharp, architectural dance tracks, and she sounded like an emissary from a better future. Over her next two big releases, the 2015 EP Hallucinogen and the 2017 album Take Me Apart, Kelela developed and refined that approach. And then: Nothing. Over the last half-decade, though, Kelela’s few records, so artfully conceived and executed, never lost their sting. They remain as striking and absorbing and ever, and they still move bodies.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Kelela talks about working on her new album Raven and suddenly being struck by the fear that she’d forgotten how to write a song. When the writer Tshepo Mokoena asks why she thinks that writer’s block hit her so hard, Kelela answers, “Well, white supremacy. And capitalism.” When she started out, Kelela was one of the few Black women prominently involved in the world of futuristic dance music. That isolation informed her music, and it also informed the absence of new music.
In the wake of the 2020 demonstrations, Kelela cut many of her business ties, resolving not to work with people who didn’t properly support her. She tells Billboard, “Because we had an uprising, Black people now have more permission to be like, ‘I don’t like that.’ I am a darker-skinned, Black femme who makes left-of-center R&B/electronic music. I need to work with people who get it.” A New York Times profile reports that Kelela sent a sprawling document, a “syllabus for the university of her mind,” to all of her prospective collaborators: “You can’t be advocating for me properly unless you do some homework.” While making her new album, Kelela was clear about her purpose. She wanted to “service the people who are there in the front row and have always been there: Queer Black people.”
Kelela is coming back to a changing world, and she knows it. In the past year or so, there’s been a whole lot more spotlight on Black artists making straight-up dance music, the most obvious example being Beyoncé’s RENAISSANCE. Kelela tells Billboard, “I’m so happy someone like B would help Black people own this music that has been obscured and not perceived as Black.” Kelela and Beyoncé both offer up visions of dance music as Black music, but those two visions are radically different. Kelela’s dance music isn’t an extroverted, steeped-in-history soundtrack for a universal party. Instead, Kelela’s take is a whole lot more languid and intimate, even if it’s just as concerned with what music can do to the body.
You can hear Kelela’s sense of purpose thrumming through Raven. On the title track, Kelela’s voice echoes over a spare, slow-building bass hum: “Through all the labor, a raven is reborn/ They tried to break her/ There’s nothing here to mourn.” Then, as the drums ecstatically surge onto the track, Kelela’s voice turns triumphant: “I can feel my body, closer to what I need tonight.” Strength isn’t just an abstract concept; it’s a physical feeling.
Many of the tracks on Raven are about the freedom of the body, whether on the dancefloor or in the bedroom. Much of the time, she sings about breaking through the walls that people put up to protect themselves: “I’ma lay it down/ Come get me right now/ I shouldn’t have to try.” Kelela loves to sing about being impatient, about being sick of waiting for someone to get the message. But her tracks have patience built in. They unfold on their own timetable, swirling and twinkling until it’s time for the beat to finally drop. She has a masterfully playful sense of tension-and-release dynamics, a command of time. The tracks hit when they’re supposed to hit. Sometimes, Kelela stops singing entirely, letting the music take over.
The songs on Raven started out with Kelela recording her own demos and then taking them to the producers who helped her shape them into tracks. Kelela recorded Raven with a small core of collaborators, some of whom have been working with her for many years. Back when she was one half of Nguzunguzu, the LA-based DJ Asmara produced tracks on Cut 4 Me; Asmara is now the co-executive producer of Raven. Other collaborators are new. The Berlin-based LSDXOXO makes brash, physical sex jams on his own, and his tracks bring just the right level of rowdiness to Kelela’s languor. LSDXOXO’s drum ‘n’ bass breakbeats charge the single “Happy Ending” with electricity, while “Contact” pulses to the same break that’s powered Baltimore club for generations.
Different sounds and ideas and subgenres float through Raven: percolating dancehall bass on “On The Run,” spacious and icy R&B synths on “Closure,” insistently thumping house kickdrums on “Bruises.” But Raven isn’t a magpie record, and the shifts between sounds are never jarring or overwhelming. Kelela has too much command over her own sound for that. The album isn’t exactly sequenced like a DJ set, but tracks flow into and out of each other, speeding up or slowing down at their conclusions. Kelela’s hushed, fluid vocals are just spectacular. She’s not a showy singer, but she’s got that same ineffable quality as Sade or Aaliyah — those rare voices that radiate blissful, narcotic cool at all times.
You can get lost in Raven. It’s an album that creates its own atmosphere — one that conjures dark nightclubs, lingering glances, long exhales. Maybe Kelela made Raven with certain spaces in mind, and maybe I won’t properly hear these tracks until I hear them in a club. With Raven, though, you don’t have to be in those spaces to feel it. If you close your eyes, the music will take you there.
Raven is out 2/10 on Warp.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Paramore’s This Is Why
• Civic’s Taken By Force
• Yo La Tengo’s This Stupid World
• Narrow Head’s Moments Of Clarity
• Big Laugh’s Consume Me
• Quasi’s Breaking The Balls Of History
• Andy Shauf’s Norm
• Amber Arcades’ Barefoot On Diamond Road
• Lance Skiiiwalker’s Audiodidactic
• Liv.e’s Girl In The Half Pearl
• Planet On A Chain’s Boxed In
• Tennis’ Pollen
• Black Belt Eagle Scout’s The Land, The Water, The Sky
• Negative Blast’s Echo Planet
• The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s The Future Is Your Past
• Darkthrone’s Goatlord: Original
• Jad Fair & Samuel Locke Ward’s Happy Hearts
• Pearla’s Oh Glistening Onion, The Nighttime Is Coming
• The Golden Dregs’ Grace And Dignity
• Supreme Beings Of Leisure’s 22
• Lisa O’Neill’s All Of This Is Chance
• My Hair Is A Rat’s Nest’s fragment
• Afternoon Bike Ride’s glossover
• Maps’ Counter Melodies
• Rebecca Black’s Let Her Burn
• In Flames’ Foregone
• The Rolling Stones’ GRRR Live!
• Laraaji’s Segue To Infinity box set
• Sial’s Sangkar EP
• Pierce The Veil’s The Jaws Of Life
• Pabllo Vittar’s Noitada
• Zolita’s Falling Out / Falling In EP
• Django Django’s Off Planet (Part I)