Kelela Raven Warp
Kelela is all about connection.
As a songwriter, the New York-based artist’s practice is a conduit for intimacy, manifested through her airy, late-night R&B experiments and the confessional nature of her lyrics.
In the decade since 2013’s breakthrough mixtape Cut 4 Me, Kelela has voiced a desire to be understood, acknowledged, over body-jerking beats that serve as timestamps of distinct eras in club music – from the icy mutations of tone-setting 2010s labels like Night Slugs and its LA counterpart Fade to Mind, to the amorphous soundscapes of now-superstar producers like Arca. “I’m giving you eyes/ But you misread the signs,” she sighed at a lover on 2015’s Miami bass-influenced Rewind, while on Cut 4 Me’s sparse’n’skewed Enemy she vehemently declared: “I need someone who knows/ Someone who gives a fuck.” This direct approach has become a hallmark for an artist whose sinewy vocals hark back to old school R&B, even when the production is propelling her into the future.
Five years have passed since her 2017 debut album proper, Take Me Apart, which was followed a year later by a remix project co-helmed by Nguzunguzu’s Asmara, who steps back into the producer role for Kelela’s hotly anticipated second full-length, Raven. During her time away, Kelela has studiously avoided the public eye. That came to an abrupt end around New Year’s Day 2022, when a hacker attempted to flog PS5s through her Twitter and inadvertently coaxed her back into the social media limelight. Like the fan-created memes lamenting Kelela’s prolonged silence, I guess you had to be there.
But the real wait – the wait for new music – came to an official end last autumn with the release of Washed Away, a self-described “heart check-in” that cleared the way for Raven. An album anchored by returning themes of tenderness and longing, but also dissatisfaction and boundary setting, it is a natural continuation of what’s come before. On Raven, Kelela is re-establishing her connection with herself.
Oscillating between ambient outpourings with enough bite to avoid veering into somnambulant terrain, (Washed Away, Holier), skittering breakbeat bangers (Happy Ending, Missed Call) and unhurried, dubbed-out songs primed for stripteases in smoky back rooms (immediate highlight Fooley), the abrasive edges of her earlier works have been buffed to present a more meditative sound that lights up a different part of the brain. It’s warmer territory that sees her dealing in explorations of self more than sound. If Take Me Apart was a bellwether for this shift in temperature, then Raven is the fully realised article.
Across instrumentals supplied by new collaborators, including thrilling techno provocateurs AceMo and LSDXOXO, polymathic producers FAUZIA and Bambii, ambient duo OCA, and the master of slinkiness, Kaytranada, Kelela’s voice is as alluring as ever. Whether it’s purring at love interests on Sorbet or Closure (which has all the calling cards of a Kelela bang jam in the spirit of All the Way Down) or rising to an angelic whisper on tracks like Holier, a beatless self-worth statement: “So I go where they hold me down/ And you’re not going to take my crown.”
As has always been the case with Kelela, each word feels intentional and lived in as she engages the mind and body in one fell swoop. “Through all the labour/ A raven is reborn/ They tried to break her/ There’s nothing here to mourn,” she coos knowingly on the hypnotic AceMo- and FAUZIA-produced title track, her voice stretching out over an undulating, droning synth as she reprimands shady behaviour and game players. The production is intentionally bare, letting her voice penetrate with minimal distraction. Then something shifts – like the unclenching of weary muscles – and the track breaks, Kelela ascending into an airy falsetto.
The spiritual significance of the raven, considered by many cultures to be a symbol of death, rebirth and starting anew, doesn’t go unnoticed. To title the project, and its song of the same name, Raven is entirely deliberate. Kelela has spent time examining and re-evaluating in a learning process that saw her cutting off ties to that which longer serves her. “Ultimately, I’m working to be in alignment with myself,” she told Dazed in her first interview back.
It all comes back to this self-affirming goal. On Take Me Apart, Kelela lay herself bare with the knowledge that her unabashed vulnerability would resonate with listeners, drawing them closer into her orbit. Raven sees her opening up to herself. “I started this process from the feeling of isolation and alienation I’ve always had as a Black femme in dance music, despite its Black origins. Raven is my first breath taken in the dark,” she explained at the time of the album’s announcement. Now, with its release, it’s time to exhale.