I first heard the name Kelela only one week ago through Twitter. “Kelela’s album comes out in TWO DAYS,” my feed read. “WIG SNATCHED.” As someone who considers herself pretty in-the-know musically, I was confused: who was this Kelela? What kind of music did she make? And why had I never heard of her?
After hearing her excellent debut album, Take Me Apart, for the first time upon its October 6th release, two of those questions were answered. Kelela is an alternative R&B singer from Washington D.C who’s received praise from artists like Solange. She makes dark, moody tracks with a focus on love, relationships, and sex; typical rhythmic tropes, to be sure, but woven into a soundscape so unique and rich they sound revolutionary. But despite these realizations, my third question still stands: why had I never heard of her? Now, though, it’s said as a disbelieving scoff towards my past self. Because if there’s one thing Take Me Apart makes sure of, it’s that you’ll never forget Kelela’s name—or talent—again.
The album, which chronicles relationships step-by-step, opens right where it shouldn’t: the end. “Frontline” begins in a distant haze of pulsing beats, as if someone transferred the image of a searchlight poking through fog into sound. In the chorus, however, that distance disintegrates. The newly pounding bass ushers in a confident, sassy side of Kelela—“Hold up, wait, you’re fucking with my groove/Gettin’ on this place, makin’ moves/Cry and talk about it baby, but it ain’t no use/I ain’t gonna sit here with your blues,” goes the catchiest lyric—that continues throughout the rest of the song as she lists the reasons she’s leaving her lover behind. “The feeling behind it is very confident and sassy,” she explains. “It feels more empowering than sad.”
That self-assuredness is called into question on the Janet-Jackson-inspired “Waitin,” which describes the first time one sees their ex after walking out on them. In contrast to “Frontline,” the second track is much warmer and dance-friendly due to its reliance on 80s synths and disco grooves. From the moment the speakers are turned up at the beginning it’s impossible not to picture Michael Jackson himself moonwalking around the dancefloor. The duality of “Frontline” and “Waitin” is not only a small stroke of genius due to their respective strengths but also for the juxtaposition they create; because Kelela is done with her relationship in “Frontline” the track is colder and encourages you to chant rather than dance, but because she’s trying to attract her partner back in “Waitin” the song becomes an appealing earworm in the first few notes and encourages constant grooving and smiling.
In addition to her mastery of the poetic FU and Chic-style come-on, Kelela has a gift for creating haunting ballads such as “Better.” Her emotional vocals, framed only by the most minimal of synths, paint a picture little-seen in today’s love songs: reconciling with a former partner as friends to celebrate the impact they had on your life. “Tell me, is this how it goes when you let someone know/That they gave it their best but you still gotta roll?” she wonders sadly in the first pre-chorus; it’s mirrored in the second with the line “Tell me, is this how it goes when you let someone know/That it’s all for the best? We cut and we grow.” Though the lyrics and vocals are stunning on their own, the true triumph of “Better” is that it manages to draw sadness from the same sound palette as the faster songs on the album.
Take Me Apart’s greatest achievement is that, even as it slides between full-blown sex songs like the title track and empowerment tracks for black women like “Altadena,” it always feels like an interconnected world in which Kelela rules supreme. Each song stands strong on its own, to be sure, but Take Me Apart is meant to be experienced as a full body of music. And with an expert blend of lyrical poignancy, atmospheric beats, and entrancing vocals, it is absolutely impossible not to enjoy it. Kelela may be unknown to the general public for now, but with Take Me Apart, she shows that she definitely shouldn’t be.