The best albums of 2017, No 9: Kelela – Take Me Apart

Alternative R&B found its emotional side in this striking study of a breakup, from separation to reconciliation to renunciation

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The term alternative R&B has always been a weird one. Most straightforwardly it is used to describe R&B artists who adopt unconventional vocal stylings, or incorporate other genres into their music. Perhaps without meaning to it has also acquired another sense; of a style that is cool and icy, of a genre suitable for fashion shows and shorn of anything as icky as emotion.

Kelela has been placed in the bracket of alternative R&B since her debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, was released in 2013. A collaboration with producers from the labels Fade to Mind and London’s Night Slugs, it was full of synth washes, discordant motifs and deep, deep bass. Kelela’s vocals were clipped, constrained and locked in an ethereally high register. Her lyrics were also minimalist, but they were working with emotional themes, from the propulsion of lust to the fear of rejection.

After signing to Warp in 2015 Kelela produced an EP, Hallucinogen, and now an album in which she continues to explore these ideas. She describes Take Me Apart as being the study of a breakup, starting from the point of separation, then moving through fixation, recrimination and the odd sexual reconciliation, and ending ultimately in renunciation.

The lyrics remain uncomplicated, but each song is revealing. Sometimes there is strength or the confidence of experience (Kelela is 34), but other times there is weakness. In LMK (Let Me Know), she describes trying to read the uncertain signs of a man she thinks is interested in her. “I ain’t gonna wait if you hesitate, so let me know,” she sings. By the end of the verse, however, her assertiveness has become more of a plea: “All you gotta do is let me know / Let me know, just let me know.”

In revealing vulnerability, Kelela shows she is not interested in the cool pose of alternative R&B. This attitude bleeds into the music. She continues to work with the producers behind Cut 4 Me, notably Jam City and Bok Bok, alongside other avant-garde collaborators such as Arca. But Kelela’s main musical touchstone for Take Me Apart was Janet Jackson. She describes the track Better, meanwhile, as having “downloaded Phil Collins”. Yes, the sub bass remains, as do the icy synths, but these future sounds are put to the service of classic structures, and powerful pop songs – Onanon, Frontline, Truth or Dare – are the result.

Take Me Apart feels as if Kelela is taking the different ingredients that have characterised her music to this point and forming them into an honest whole. This honesty extends to the album’s crowning glory: her voice. No longer mannered in style or tone, it is rich and warming, reminiscent of Janet but also of Aaliyah, another pioneer who made music that also worked in conventional terms.

In a recent interview, Kelela described the intention behind her album. “When I’m thinking about lyrics and when I’m thinking about sonics,” she said, “I’m thinking about the black women who have never really felt perfectly shaped for the spaces that have been made for them. Or the black women who are trying to fit into something. I wanted to create a space for us to not be subject to any confines, especially when it comes to sound. I guess, for me, those are the politics behind the record. That is what I’m trying to do.” That is surely also what she achieved.

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Paul MacInnes

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