The best albums of 2013: No 7 – Cut 4 Me by Kelela

Call the genre what you like, but Kelela made the strongest statement so far in hipster/indie/twisted R&B

See all our Best Albums of 2013 coverage here

Three years have rattled past and we've still not pinned down an official name for the new R&B boom: PBR&B (for Pabst Blue Ribbon, the hipster beer of choice) sounds like a section on a tax return form, hipster R&B is redundant now even your grandma has a blog and a beard and indie-R&B evokes memories of Alex Turner's dodgy Drake cover. As for alt-R&B, that may as well be a mac shortcut that sets your desktop image to a picture of R Kelly.

Twisted R&B is perhaps the most accurate term we've heard so far – especially with regards to Kelela's excellent debut mixtape Cut 4 Me. The songs are twisted both sonically – warping 90s R&B melodies with club beats – and emotionally, thanks to her ability to undercut mainstream pop tropes like love and seduction with such dark devotion you get the sense she's singing from a bush outside her ex-boyfriend's house.

The DC-born, Los Angeles-based (and of Ethiopian ancestry) Kelela Mizanekristos may be 30 years old but she's a relative newcomer to the music scene. Cut 4 Me was released in the middle of autumn, becoming an apt soundtrack to the orange glow of 5pm streetlights and night bus windows streaming with raindrops. A collaboration between electronic sister labels Fade to Mind and Night Slugs, Cut 4 Me was an experiment for the production team, the first time the production crew had used vocals on their club tracks; in Kelela they had found their voice. As a result, DJs such as Girl Unit, Kingdom, NA and Bok Bok took meticulous care to pinpoint each track's unique sense of sadness. Their aim, Kelela told the Observer in October, was to form a "pairing of scary and comforting, jolting and easy".

Kelela sings, overwhelmingly and obsessively, about love lost. But the theme of late-night longing is sustained by the diversity of sounds her producers bring to the table. Nguzunguzu's brutalist production on the grime-indebted Enemy adds a savage intent to her lyrics ("I need someone who knows, someone who gives a fuck"). Do It Again is almost maniacal in its sexual desires, with NA using sci-fi synths to add a spookiness to the soundscape. The Kingdom-produced track Bank Head is Cut 4 Me's most impressive creation – five minutes of spacious drum beats set to breathy falsetto, it takes you back to the tingles of an intoxicating teenage crush.

Reading on mobile? Listen to Kelela's Cut 4 Me on Spotify here

There are two interludes – Go All Night (Let Me Roll) and Go All Night (Let It Burn) – both of which act as mellow moments of respite, before the neo-soul of Cherry Coffee caps off the confessional collection, so languid in its groove it leaves you floating in a half-awake state.

The main reason why Kelela's music has resonated with our critics this year more deeply than that of her contemporaries – Blood Orange, Jessy Lanza, AlunaGeorge – is because it sounds as if there's a vulnerable human behind the sound. A lot of twisted R&B can sound robotic, cold and hyper-sexualised. This just sounds raw: across 13 tracks Kelela travels from angered to paranoid, horny to high. She will sound fine, then terrible, then merely quite unhappy until finally, for a while at least, she sounds at peace.

In this sense, she has a lot more in common with R&B acts from the 90s as opposed to her peers – at times the personality she drafts in to her vocals make her reminiscent of an early Erykah Badu. Elsewhere the ghosts of Aaliyah's One in a Million or Destiny's Child's Get On the Bus float through the record, whereas her fluttering vocal trills recall Mariah Carey without the denim hot pants and disco guitars.

Judging by the current round of tip lists – in particular the BBC Sound of 2014 poll on which Kelela made the longlist – the next 12 months are undoubtably going to be awash with a similar structure of falsettos, surreal beats and eerie minimalism. But let's not forget: Kelela's Cut 4 Me did it first, and almost certainly did it best.


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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