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Kelela’s ‘Take Me Apart’ will take you apart

| Friday, November 3, 2017

 

Dominique DeMoe | The Observer

Kelela Mizanekristos has been pushing the envelope with her music for the better part of the past five years. Her “Hallucinogen” EP — released two years ago — showcased the Ethiopian-American vocalist’s songwriting skill and affective creative vision, honed over years of eclectic vocal work under disparate genres like indie rock and even metal.

But her debut full-length record surpasses her past work, and indeed sounds like the logical climax thereof. “Take Me Apart” is a striking, ambitious artistic statement that interrogates and expands the very boundaries of R&B and electronic music without compromising one or the other. Setting herself apart from cookie-cutter contemporaries, Kelela intentionally shapes a menacing, sensual aesthetic entirely unique to herself. Unlike challenging visionaries like FKA twigs, however, Kelela remains unprecedentedly accessible; “Take Me Apart” is structured and produced largely like a pop record. Yet, Kelela’s emotional authenticity never suffers.

In doing so, Kelela overcomes a common challenge that vocalists face when the extent of their contributions is questioned on solo records. Sure, the record’s liner notes feature quite the crew of talented producers, from the industrious Arca to bass music sweetheart Jam City. But the velvety production on “Take Me Apart” is quite unlike these producers’ usual work. Arca’s production — for one — sounds nothing like his recent work for Bjork or even past work for FKA twigs herself. On “Take Me Apart,” these producers’ craft sounds more focused and cohesive, with Arca and company trading shattered beats for luscious bass and smooth aural curvature. The record is stormy yet quiet, like shimmering darkness that underscores rather than overshadows Kelela’s central position. This is no accident; production credits notwithstanding, Kelela’s creative guidance is obvious. These producers may bring in talent, but Kelela’s calling the shots.

“Take Me Apart” addresses familiar themes of heartbreak, with dashes of tumultuous relationships. But Kelela’s lyricism is imbued with gripping realism; speaking frequently in second-person perspective, you’d think you’re her lover yourself — or perhaps her empathetic psyche, an open ear as she works out struggles in her own mind.

This approach gives the record its stirring sense of intimacy. On “Better” — perhaps the record’s slowest burn — Kelela sings “I told you that we would be closer / If we took some time further apart,” before the chorus asks “Didn’t it make you better? / Aren’t we better now?” But the track’s sudden submersion into darker, faster rhythms and Kelela’s repeated, whispered “no” toward the track’s conclusion belies her true feelings. But you could sense her grief all along.

Kelela veers into more atmospheric territory on the record’s most cathartic tracks. “Enough” finds the vocalist at her most experimental — but also her most vulnerable. When synths burst around her like fireworks as she repeats “You’ve had enough / I’ve had enough,” you’d think she’s undergoing apotheosis. But the vocalist’s rigorous craftsmanship ripens her passions into fully-fledged musical concepts on every track. The record’s opener, “Frontline,” features an exhilarating “drop” — preceded by a minute of spacey atmospheres that set the stage for her dazzling voice.

If it’s not yet obvious, this is a glowing endorsement of Kelela’s debut record. Every track shines with her inimitable persona, backed by cutting-edge production that doesn’t obscure her ambitious artistic vision. Every moment on “Take Me Apart” is memorable, each an opportunity to fall in love, to break up, to reminisce, to forget — to embrace your own emotional depth.

 

Artist: Kelela

Album: “Take Me Apart”

Label: Warp Records

Favorite Track: “Truth or Dare,” “Enough,” “Waitin”

If you like: FKA twigs, Solange

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

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