For those of us born and raised in the 90s, RnB was the soundtrack to our youth. Surrounded by the sounds of Dru Hill, JoJo, En Vogue and Escape, RnB became synonymous with the decade for a generation of kids. Smooth pillow-talk and soulful glamour filled the air wherever we went, so much so that it’s become an auditory shorthand for the 90s when we look back at the decade today.
However, its popularity also proved its demise and as the new millennium got underway, RnB had become rigid, predictable and more often than not, dull. Suitably rinsed, the genre fell out of the charts and out of favour (with a few notable exceptions in Beyonce and Rihanna of course). In recent years however 90s-style RnB has burst back into the public imagination, reigniting that passion all over again. While a large part of this resurgence has been down to good old-fashioned nostalgia, a new wave of artists has been propelled along with it, bringing vivid experimentation and wild sonic influences to a genre in dire need of refreshment.
Queen among this new wave is Kelela. Her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me saw her conjuring RnB melodies over harsh, Night Slugs-produced beats, the infatuated and industrial sitting side by side, throwing listeners into a frenzy. The mixtape was the perfect introduction to her aesthetic. Otherworldly synths are used with her elegant falsetto, hinting at sensuality, yet undertones of anger and pain hinted at something more profound throughout. Her exploration of the personal realm went to different depths. She confronted heartache and pain from the feminine perspective in an empowering, unique way.
Cut 4 Me was a dark and twisted cycle that was as deep as it was danceable. Kelela’s warm tones wrapped around the ecstatic synths and jolting beats yet her lyricism did just as the title suggests. It was an abrasive version of RnB’s sound, presenting emotions far from the traditional “break-up R&B” album, capturing a vulnerability that had been lacking in the genre for some time. Take ‘Enemy’ for example, a twitchy and brusque from production to lyrics. Lines like “Now you’re up in my face/ Breathing down my neck/ Better back up off me now,” are hard, yet Kelela’s vocal brings a lightness to offer a clubby appeal.
More than anything Kelela’s debut shook off the nostalgia trap. By taking familiar elements of RnB and placing them in wildly unfamiliar territory, she forced to the listener to break away from their expectations of the genre. While she is a RnB artist, Kelela exists outside the institution that is RnB. What seems unfamiliar in context has become familiar in the sense of feminine expression.
Her new album Take Me Apart continues that work. She explores human sexuality in the context of connection and advocates for having control of her body in a simply physical sense. Something that women are often frowned-upon for doing. Her exploration of a woman’s body, however, is far from reductive, in fact, it’s thoroughly empowering. Songs like ‘S.O.S’, ‘Take Me Apart’, and ‘Blue Light’ are sung with a clear confidence as she asserts her desire to get in on with a former or new lover.
There is an aspect of natural liberation felt throughout. She lays herself bare from song to song and owns up to all of her feelings. Her strength as a songwriter cannot be missed in this realm. Despite the strength of ‘LMK’, Kelela doesn’t need one recognizable single to serve as a standard bearer for the album, as each song melts sensually into the next creating a whole far more rich and complex than anyone one track could be. The compelling pull comes from her unique way of singing about the emotionally relatable. Her vocal strength is heard on softer songs like ‘Onanon’ and ‘Turn To Dusk’, while the backing is not as lush as other songs, the simple lyrics paired with her feather-light vocals are smouldering. It’s enough to be utterly shattering.
On the surface Take Me Apart is a traditional RnB album, full of seductive appeals to a lover and riffs on the sound pioneered by Timbaland and his ilk, yet delve deeper, and you’ll find subtle tricks of production and melody worthy of any PC Music producer. Sonically it’s full of layers, and each listen reveals something you didn’t hear the first or fourth time. Abstract arrangements tied in with sparse textures are dark and appropriately transformative. The attention to detail in the production is cinematically mesmerising, and while grand it doesn’t overpower Kelela’s vocals. The album creates a number of vibes. There are songs to get you in the mood or leave you in a puddle of emotion. Throughout the record she twists the submissive role women in RnB are expected to play into new shapes, inspiring her listeners and revealing more of her desires and depths. The result is a shimmering self-assurance that builds and builds with every track until, by the end of the album, the listener is enamoured with Kelela, and Kelela is unashamedly in love with herself.