Kelela is an alternative r&b singer of Ethiopian descent who hails from Washington, D.C. Her Ethiopian parents moved to the United States before she was born. This background, as she described in an interview on Beats One Radio with Ebro Darden, was a fundamental aspect of her musicianship as she grew up. Kelela was raised listening to a melting pot of different musical styles. Her parents had exposed her to world music, jazz, and show tunes, and she became enamored of r&b music by way of artists such as Janet Jackson and Kelly Rowland. Moreover, art-pop artist Bjork was instrumental in her artistic development as well, serving as one of her biggest influences. This wide and eclectic musical background is evident in her music, in which she stretches the r&b genre as far as she can take it, infusing it with influences ranging from U.K. bass to trap to freestyle. Although her previous works, 2013’s Cut 4 Me and 2015’s Hallucinogen, have shown her prowess for being able to bend the framework of r&b to her advantage, this talent on her long-belabored debut album (the prior two projects being a mixtape and an EP respectively), Take Me Apart, is the definitive statement of Kelela’s ability to push the boundaries of r&b to the absolute extreme.
With producers on the album that are more renowned in the electronic music world than in r&b, and a wide variety of musical styles that run the gauntlet of cutting-edge production, Kelela’s Take Me Apart refuses to be complacent and settle for passable. She constantly challenges herself, and with that her listeners, to break new ground with r&b while still retaining the sensual and vulnerable spirit of the new jack swing era that inspired her. The end result is an album that essentially serves as the bridge between the roots of r&b’s new and exciting incarnation that features artists such as herself, Frank Ocean, and James Blake pushing the art form into unforeseen territory, and the roots of this sort of innovation that can be traced back to the late-’80s and early-’90s, when she was a kid from Washington, D.C. becoming in infatuated with the scene for the first time.
One of the defining characteristics of Take Me Apart is Kelela’s deliberate juxtaposing of the past and future of r&b and pop music. Take for instance “Frontline.” With a polyphonic, immediately catchy chorus, a familiar song topic of a breakup, and traditional verse-chorus structure, “Frontline” lyrically and vocally would not be out of place on a song from the new jack swing era. However, the production is a dark, glossy, futuristic blend of various hip-hop and electronic production styles, taking influence from U.K. bass, trap and art pop in even measure, that results in the song sounding like a mesh of cutting-edge modern day styles. On the song “Waitin,” the production structurally is reminiscent of the r&b of yore with nods to the freestyle movement prevalent during the ’80s, but is done so with modernized instrumentation to sound like the best example of Kelela’s blending of the old and the new. It quite frankly could have been released in the early 1990s and fit right in, and somehow was released this year and sounds groundbreaking.
Speaking of the production, it’s nothing short of amazing. With an arsenal of in-demand producers at the helm of this album, Kelela’s desires for retrofuturism are a cakewalk for them. Day-one collaborator Jam City continues their incredible repertoire for crafting electronically drenched r&b music since her debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me. Arca, someone Kelela has worked with dating back to the Hallucinogen sessions, is another notable name here. He’s helped produce for a bevy of artists, most notably Kanye West, fellow alternative r&b auteur FKA Twigs, and coincidentally Bjork, and his work here retains his futuristic, surreal and mechanical vibe, while still blending incredibly well with Kelela’s r&b sensibilities. Other producers show up to the party as well, such as Al Shux, Kwes and Bok Bok, the latter having helped to produce my personal favorite on the album, “Blue Light.” All in all, this is probably the best-produced r&b album of 2017 for my money’s worth, and among the best produced this decade, period. It’s got a catchy, undeniable flavor to it that is impossible to deny, but a maverick sound that can leave you questioning exactly how someone was able to come up with this sort of music. Couple this with Kelela’s powerful yet vulnerable vocal delivery, with soaring falsettos and quivering harmonies being showcased in even measure, and the end result is an album like no other.
In short, Kelela’s Take Me Apart is a crash course on how to pay homage effectively. In an era where artists of the past are trying to maintain their legacy among newer music listeners, Kelela shows us how to tastefully and masterfully move music into the present, nod to its past, and hint at its future at the same time. Fans of older r&b will enjoy the song structure, production roots and lyricism. Fans of modern r&b will find comfort in the reliance on synthesizers and production effects. R&b fans looking ahead will find satisfaction with this album’s genre- blending sensibilities breaking new ground and stretching the definition of what r&b music is to some of its farthest reaches up to this point. A highlight of 2017.