When Kelela walked on stage at Full Moon Festival earlier this year, she gave a speech just as memorable as her powerhouse performance. The Ethiopian-American singer, born Kelela Mizanekristos, implored her audience to remain resolute even if they don’t experience success in their twenties—something she, a music industry darling at 34, knows all too well. Take Me Apart, her first full-length album after a breakout mixtape on Fade to Mind and 2015’s stunning Hallucinogen EP, should bring hope to all late bloomers. It’s a debut that sounds like any other artist’s career best: an essential, boundary-pushing addition to the R&B canon.
Kelela’s sound has always stemmed from the interplay between the soft intimacy of her voice and the harsh steeliness of outside production, provided by a who’s who of the deconstructed club scene. While Take Me Apart retains much of the metallic experimentalism of her earlier work (along with a number of old collaborators, including Jam City, Arca, Bok Bok, and Ma Nguzu), the triumph of the record is its integration of outsider styles into a polished pop package. Lead single, “LMK,” is a prime example: ominous synth clangs and sonorous bass stabs situate the listener firmly in a dark, after-hours space, while Kelela delivers a measured, deadpan hook that “2 On”-era Tinashe would have killed for. The propulsive percussion and staccato pre-chorus on “Onanon” make for an equally thrilling pop moment, while the standout line, “It’s not a breakup, it’s just a breakdown,” feels destined for infinite retweetability.
The great surprise of Take Me Apart is not Kelela’s effortless synthesis of disparate realms of the contemporary music landscape, although her skill as a curator is undeniable. The title track’s mixture of cavernous industrial percussion and squeaking, PC Music-esque synth accents is the sound of a master selector at work, reflected by its unlikely lineup of producers; alt-pop hitmaker Ariel Rechtshaid rubs up against electronic wunderkinds Arca and Jam City, with English experimentalist Kwes and “Empire State of Mind” co-writer Al Shux thrown in for good measure. What’s most astonishing is the record’s playful relationship with sounds of the past.
The legacy of late ‘90s/early ‘00s R&B greats, most notably Cassie, Aaliyah, and Brandy, looms large among swaths of contemporary artists, but, more often than not, their influence seems to be more spiritual than sonic (see the much-maligned “PBR&B” movement). Not so for Kelela. The skittering drums and bumping synth lines on “Truth Or Dare” sound like a lost Ryan Leslie-Cassie collab, while her deft vocals on the bridge of “Better” bring to mind Aaliyah’s 2001 classic, “More Than A Woman.” But it would be a disservice to call her a skilled imitator. While she incorporates the sonic tropes of millennial pop-R&B, Kelela updates its politics, alternating between radical vulnerability and declarations of power and independence within the same song. This is music for the “u up?” era, songs that draw on the challenging search for love and meaning in a world of digital indifference.
It may have taken Kelela a long time to get to this point, but the wait was certainly worth it. From the sharp, audible intake of breath that opens the album to the soft fade-out of closer, “Altadena,” she does not relinquish control once, making every moment of the record feel pointed and intentional. It’s a masterful work that proves once and for all that, as a wise woman once said, age ain’t nothing but a number.