Kelela is, above all, concerned with maintaining dignity within movement. In interviews, and an editorial piece published by Resident Advisor, she has been outspoken about the constraints and compromises of working as a black woman within a music industry controlled in large part by white men under late capitalism. Part of that process has been walking the line between using different influences — “I don't see my sound inherent in one type of beat,” she explained to the Fader — without compromising her blackness, and in turn without being tokenized, marginalized, extracted from.
“Things that are considered canon in black culture are the things that people wanting to reject those stereotypes would initially go straight towards … you have to decide, I guess, how you’re going to deal, how you’re going to engage, and how much to engage? And how much to reject?” she posed to Vulture, political questions inherent within musical ones.
One of her concerns after completing her first official album, Take Me Apart, was that it didn’t explicitly deal with blackness, but as she noted to Pitchfork, “I’m a black woman, nothing that I make could ever exist outside of that experience,” remarking in a later Fader interview that “it’s silly to even think that there’s only one way that we can express our identity.” Take Me Apart is a document of that multiplicity, specifically in the process of both centering and moving outward. If the album is, as she has referred to it, a syllabus, then the text is her life: drawing from the end of one relationship and the experience of another, with casual hook-ups bridging them.
Kelela, the actor and curator, positions these experiences on a continuum of working out how to love, and how to make love, with vulnerability and strength at all times: after struggle and heartbreak, in and out of relationships alike. The pursuit of a healthy balance between meaningful engagement and self-regard — the sound is personal and political because it is nothing less than life.
So more than her harder-surfaced, UK Bass-underpinned breakout mixtape Cut 4 Me, or the more spacious and darkly lit Hallucinogen EP, Take Me Apart fully inhabits a lineage of 90s R&B that runs through the languid, subdued pressure of Aaliyah and the intimate exploration of Janet Jackson’s “Empty.” It is central to this record that “the way that I’m expressing myself on this record is coming from a place of vulnerability that is very much in the tradition of R&B,” and that the way Kelela is pushing R&B is quite literal. It’s between walls of intimate proximity that the title track breaks apart and swirls centrifugally to mirror the title action, the body made the center of the storm; likewise, they establish the space in which “Truth or Dare” steps forward and back, creating a rhythm of action, a come-on, out of limit, a dynamic fleshed out in the softly sung subtext: “You’re in a tough position / I put you there.” And it’s this tightness that causes “Enough” to less splinter apart than disintegrate as the beat, courtesy of Bjork-collaborator Arca, chops up the chorus, her vocals washing over the remains. “I’ve had enough,” she sings, but as the music stays within and true to that sound of vulnerability, so does she to her feelings. Transcendence isn’t her concern.
The way it reaches out is vertical: from the start, the album resembles a series of ripples, one image bleeding into, imprinting onto the next. Opener “Frontline,” built on the kind of skittering hi-hats that draws out and retracts between snare hits, teeters between the resolve to tell someone she has to leave him and the more ambiguous talk with herself. As the beat becomes sparser, the bridge enters like a slight transmutation of the chorus, and Kelela sings blurred mantras of herself: “I'll tell you what, there's no luck, it's all me / I'm staying up, don't wait up 'cause they're betting on me.” When the beat drops out entirely, the bridge and repeated chorus overflow into each other without boundary; the scene comes alive as the interaction between thought and action is brought to the fore. Kelela shows this directorial sense on a larger scale throughout, like when “Better,” a ballad about resolution with an ex, ends with her asking if “we’re better now”; a chorus of vocals coos a series of “no”s, but then fades into “LMK,” the first song in a stretch about more casual sexual intimacy. There’s no room for sentimentality in the broader picture.
Yet despite, or perhaps in part because of, how well-constructed and immersive the album is, melding contributions from Arca, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Jam City into a unified sound, it feels like the focus on emotional portrayal often comes at the expense of songs. The supple, cascading “Waitin” is the catchiest song here, but though it makes sense as a short set-piece of doubt, were it elaborated a bit more it could easily be lead-single material, which is especially disappointing when “LMK,” the actual lead single, stakes itself on an unremarkable melody. Much of the album suffers from too much commitment, perhaps: second single “Frontline”’s linear fluidity comes at the expense of a stand-out hook, while “Onanon” rushes its own hook, packing together melodic lines a bit too tightly, to convey tension and desperation. “Better,” the end of the album’s first arc, luxuriates in build-up to reach a staccato chorus that would work better if it didn’t feel like part of a larger musical arc, and that subservience to the greater vision is a through-line, for better and worse. It all feels real, certainly, but it wouldn’t hurt for the songs to aim past their reality once in a while.
Emotional verisimilitude is far from the worst fault, though, and moments like the slithery synth carving a hole to fall through on “Blue Light” or the subdued step of the extremely tender “S.O.S.” make it a worthwhile cause. Yet perhaps the payoff is most apparent in the one song where Kelela steps out of the boundaries she’s conveyed: the beautiful closer “Altadena,” on which she repeats, “Nothing to be said or done / There's a place for everyone / Let me remind you,” sounding almost straight out of Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope. It’s all the more powerful for what came before, a blueprint of experience that doubles as a blanket of empathy — Kelela has said the song is specifically for black women “operating in spaces where maybe they’re not appreciated.”
Janet’s album reached inward and out in equal measure, in the process reifying both, and maybe Kelela will make an album of that scope in the future, but Take Me Apart is its own achievement: in sharing an album of ripples, she’s found a way to reach out while keeping her center in sight. It’s an uncompromising vision.
Eric Ng is a writer for Daily Lobo Music. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org