Can one successfully rewind and fast-forward at the same time? Kelela, it seems, is a dab hand at it. Over the course of one celebrated mixtape, 2013âs Cut 4 Me, a 2015 EP, Hallucinogen, and, now, her long-awaited debut album, one of the most arresting new voices in R&B has created a deft stitch in time, laying 90s R&B vocals over cutting-edge digital production techniques. If that summary seems reductionist or formulaic, it shouldnât: Take Me Apart is a very spacious operation in which the 34-year-old ponders love, lust and hurt as soundbeds break down around her.
LMK, the lead track, is Kelelaâs most accessible case in point. As hyper-modern come-hither, it finds Kelela propositioning someone. âNo oneâs tryna settle down,â she breathes, âall you gotta do is let me know.â A pretty keyboard twinkle and some throwback handclap beats become wedded to doomy resonances, courtesy of producer Jam City, who throws in fast-forwarding audio tape squeak for good measure. Half a dozen Kelelas weigh in, on ecstatic âohâs, little half-spoken raps, on FKA twigs-like high notes. The no-strings hook-up is a standard trope of pop music, but Kelela is nobodyâs disposable night friend.
Since then, a nagging break-up song called Frontline has featured even more cinematic sounds â lighter clicks, inhales, car key fob beeps (Jam City again). Kelelaâs sing-song vocals play off against echoey, late-night skitters.
As engrossing as those tunes are, the title track still manages to surprise you. Again, Kelela reels you in with naturalistic vocals. The chorus then jumps you, resonant beat-shrapnel assaulting the track; you want to duck for cover and turn it up at the same time. Over the course of 14 tracks, Take Me Apart faintly recalls the 90s work of Timbaland and Aaliyah, or Timbaland and Destinyâs Child, when ideas about what mainstream R&B would allow were upended. An icy, small-hours feel means the Weeknd is an inevitable contemporary comparison.
To generalise: up top, Kelelaâs melodic coos are silken, layered and vulnerable, cleaving to song forms that traditionalists would recognise. Down below, the electronics range far and wide â more assured now than on Cut 4 Me. Trap beats rub up against menacing bass music with UK roots, making this Washington-raised, LA-based musician something of a shape-shifting nomad (her own roots are Ethiopian). In this mix are other returnees such as Arca â Alejandro Ghersi, the London-based producer whose avant-garde digitals fill his own albums and BjÃ¶rkâs. Perhaps less well known is the input of producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Charli XCX), and the xxâs Romy Madley Croft.
The next candidate for a disruptive single might be the atmospheric Blue Light, another headphone feast in which two notionally opposite boxes are ticked: sultriness and instability. Or maybe Onanon, where Kelelaâs swing comes untethered from an increasingly inconstant, Doppler-effect beat. These are unanchored R&B songs for unmoored times, with Kelelaâs alluring vocals holding fast, front and centre.