I’ll be honest: I should have covered this weeks ago. And while if we were to go back to 2014 I’d say my prior ambivalence was due to my general unfamiliarity and distaste for certain tropes in R&B, that’s changed over the past three years, thanks to me covering a fair amount more in this genre and finding styles and sounds I really liked.
But let me be honest, the reason I was not more on the ball with this album was a lot more human and mildly more embarrassing: because somewhere in my brain wires got crossed and I kept thinking that Kelela was Kehlani, another R&B act who released her full-length debut this year and with whom I was a lot more familiar thanks to a number of guest appearances… which was also a record I missed covering. Now I did listen to SweetSexySavage – it’s okay, a few good songs let down by more filler than it needed and some frustrating production choices – but again, I’m getting off track here because Kelela is a very different performer, even if their career trajectories fit a similar timeline. From the guest appearances I did hear from Kelela, she was going in a far less commercial direction, signed to Warp and working with Gorillaz and Solange and Danny Brown. And her own musical background is a lot more eclectic – she started off singing in jazz and even a progressive metal group before switching to more alternative, electronic R&B. In other words, when you factor in the critical acclaim and the line-up of producers and songwriters she was working with – the names that jumped out at me were Ariel Rechtshaid, Romy Croft of The xx, and Arca – this was bound to be a fascinating listen, so what did I find on Take Me Apart?
Folks, I’ve given this a lot of listens over the past week… and if I can be blunt, I wish I liked this a lot more than I do. I mean, I certainly see the appeal and I can see why in R&B this will certainly be considered genre pushing in its inclusion of experimental electronics, but with every listen it just doesn’t grab me as much as I’d like, especially as I get the feeling that Arca and his imitators can feel increasingly one-dimensional. But even beyond that, when I look at what Kelela is bringing to the table here… look this album might have its moments, but as a whole I’m pretty underwhelmed by this.
And I think we have to start with Kelela herself… and I’m honestly struggling to pin down why I’m not as enamored with her voice as I’d like, because she is definitely a good singer with precision and control of her delivery that can carefully modulate her understated poise while showing off a pretty damn impressive range on songs like ‘LMK’, even hitting a few whistle tones. The most obvious comparison is Janet Jackson, perhaps a little less husky and more comfortable with belting, anchored by a rough cushion of multi-tracking to fill up the vocal melody when she needs it but it’s not essential, especially with traces that remind me distinctly of Bjork… but I’d be lying if I found her as naturally expressive as Janet has been in the past. Part of it is a feeling that she’s not quite as loose, a little more meticulous, not quite as focused on groove in the same way…
Which makes a certain amount of sense, when you consider the production. And I’m almost a little lost on where to start, because from the multi-tracking onward, I’m not at all convinced this production flatters Kelela’s voice or delivery. She tends to stick more with soft-spoken cooing, not attempting to command the more unstable warping mixes like FKA Twigs could on LP1 – but that’s a problem when not only is she stuck dealing with multi-tracking that only seems to emphasize rough contrasting edges, but also the massive crushing beats, leaden grooves and atonal synth shifts that have been the trademark of her producers, especially Arca. And before you even consider layers of autotune or pitch-shifting that get tacked onto ‘Blue Light’ or ‘Onanon’ or the title track, even with the multi-tracking Kelela can feel enveloped or swallowed in the mix, where her emotive subtleties are lost in a mix set to roil over whatever is in its path, like a gelatinous cube. Now on the one hand if you’re not familiar with this style of production, I can see how its fusion with mainstream R&B would be challenging or distinctly different – and you’d likely be right – but if I think back to Janet Jackson’s more experimental projects, her producers were at least conscious enough of how to coax the mix and grooves to fit with her voice instead of treating it as more of an incidental element set to clash against keening synth contortions or facing a mix that’s going to crush it underfoot. And sure, you could argue it fits the content of conflicted, messy relationships where there is no easy flow or consistent groove, but that doesn’t make the hooks stronger or give the record more flow, especially when you’re already plenty familiar with Arca’s production style and aren’t quite as wowed by a formula he’s shown many times before. Now that’s not saying we don’t get some beautiful melodic moments, but again, they are incidental moments that rarely contribute to a stronger, cohesive whole, like the slightly more stable windswept synth groove on the hook of ‘Waitin’, the muted restraint of ‘Better’, the pretty elegant swells of strings anchoring ‘Onanon’ that become all the more pronounced on ‘Turn to Dust’.
But then of course we have to get to the content and writing – and maybe this was an issue of my expectations, because when you have production that can feel as off-kilter as this does, you’d think the writing would feel more challenging in this territory. And… look, it’s not bad, but I can’t be the only one who finds it less interesting than you’d expect? Much of it plays close to very conventional R&B subject matter – sensual love jams, emotionally complicated breakup songs, you get the picture – and more to the point the detail can feel underweight or generally not all that impressive. I do appreciate framing that seems to be more emotionally balanced and complex – the most obvious case is ‘Onanon’ that shows the relationship from both sides, but ‘Frontline’ certainly shows the nuance in how the guy was pulling this girl into a self-consuming miasma necessitating the breakup – which is also pronounced on the acknowledgement that it ultimately was healthier for them both on ‘Better’ – and yet when you follow it with the messy emotions of seeing him with someone else on ‘Waitin’, there is some impact, especially when you can tell on songs like this and ‘Enough’ that Kelela knows rationally she shouldn’t care or that this guy will just repeat the same cycles… but she does care. And yet that clinical nature does become pronounced on songs like ‘LMK’, where she does care and the situation is really not that complicated, she just wants reciprocal communication and that hookup will happen! And honestly, these are good moments of emotional nuance, but none of it I would call revelatory, and when you pair it with sex jams that don’t really have the sort of groove or tonal choice to feel all that sexy… it just doesn’t click for me.
So look, this is the sort of record where I totally understand the critical acclaim, because this record is heading towards relatively unexplored territory in fusing the off-kilter instability of production from guys like Arca with modern R&B and a singer who clearly can deliver in terms of writing and delivery, and critics love this sort of thing on a conceptual level. Hell, most of the time I would include myself in that camp… the problem here for me is execution, where the marriage of these sorts of vocals and writing with this style of misshapen, unstable production doesn’t flatter vocals nor writing on an aesthetic level, lacking the sort of subtlety to support rather than engulf them, which can undercut the emotional dynamics. And on top of not really being won over by the writing or delivery… yeah, I see the appeal, I like some of the presentation, but this isn’t really for me. I’m feeling a solid 6/10, definitely recommended if you’re curious about the sound, but it doesn’t quite connect. Hey, if you’re that close to the cutting edge you won’t win everyone over, and I can accept that, so if you’re curious about that territory… eh, worth a listen, check it out.