In Kelela’s sea — On the singer’s debut, ”Take Me Apart”

Kelela’s asymmetrically shaved head has become a marker for the singer. As of late, she has accented the end of her locks with diamonds, inducing regality and elegance, two descriptors which encapsulate her ambitiously graceful debut, “Take Me Apart.”

On the cover, a nude Kelela sits in repose, her petite face shrouded like a half moon by her long flowing dreadlocks embellished with pearls; her face is relaxed. Her skin is incandescent behind a velvet curtain, a nod to Janet Jackson’s “The Velvet Rope.” Her sensuality guides her nude posture which doubles as a shield, likening a combination of the goddess of knowledge, Athena, and the goddess of love, Venus. Kelela’s poise and sensuality resemble that of Venus in Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” perhaps the most famous interpretation of Venus, yet an even sharper delineation can be made of Kelela as black Venus.

The feminine mythology welded by Kelela is constellated not by pearls and diamonds but of the oceanic pressures used to create them. It is the tenacity, weight and both physical and emotional labor of vulnerability that doubles as a sword like we’ve seen with Beyonce’s “Lemonade” and Solange’s “A Seat At the Table.” With “Take Me Apart,” she fashions feminine lore to narrate the porous space between two relationships.

Regality and tenderness ooze on the cover, only previewing the complex synth-driven whirlpools she conjures. Her voice peters in and out of the liquid vortex and in ephemeral moments like “Jupiter,” a pensive interlude on the clarity bestowed by emotional intelligence. On it, she sings, “There is a lot going on/ Find a light in a cool color,” the sound of rainfall tail ending the synthline; it’s a generous detail meant to heal and mend exhaustion of relationships. Alongside her attention to thematic details, Kelela’s lyrical dexterity and production distinguish her from her peers.  

This makes “Take Me Apart” a much richer, sensitive, mercurial world for Kelela to inhabit. It’s her rumination that often folds the simple three-minute structure of the pop song into complex triptychs and quadtychs. The complexity contouring a geography between the body and the mind like in “Blue Light’”s torrential electronica; Kelela’s soft soprano overwhelmed, suffocated, twisted and distorted by waves of synth piling on top of each other.

It’s the most complex vortex she has conjured, exceeding that of her 2013 mixtape, “Cut 4 Me” and 2015 EP, “Hallucinogen.” Kelela, since her early experimentations and drafts of electronic R&B, has focused her sound with help from collaborators Arca, Jam City and Pok Pok. The lush and atmospheric soundscapes no longer guide Kelela’s voice, but rather the other way around. Her voice masterfully orchestrates the synth lines like in the claustrophobic, “Onanonon.” The production anxiously swells with waves of distorted synth drowning Kelela’s voice, pacing between the retained digital percussion and piled vocals. Her annunciation on the chorus digitally stretch, manipulated into a frustrating anxiety by the song’s end.

Pinning the vortex together are deep inspirations of musicians like Amel Larrieux and Miriam Makeba, alongside the usual alternative female pop stars like ‘90s Madonna and Bjork. In an interview with The Ringer, Kelela shared appreciation of Makeba’s staying devotedly political while being a singer. Listening to “Take Me Apart’”s entirety you can trace Kelela’s seriousness as a student of Larrieux and Makeba’s craft; whether she is folding three different songs together to produce a specific effect or using her voice’s sweetness to accent the production.

It’s a devotional debut to the intricacies of the mind and of bodily delights, an erotica that is, at times, a treacherous place to traverse as a woman both black and queer. In a potent missive, Kelela herself writes on those geographies; it’s that much delicious to read her as it is to listen to her too.

Verdict: Kelela’s “Take Me Apart,” is for the emotional intellect. It’s a sharp poignancy of the labor of vulnerability both materially and emotionally. She mythologies herself in feminine lore, alluding to her elders like Amel Larrieux and Betty Carter while positing herself with her contemporaries like Solange and The Internet. However, it is Kelela’s meticulousness to detail that entangles the structural three minute pop song into rich and psychic triptych that distinguishes herself from her peers.     

Best Tracks: “Jupiter,” “LMK,” “Waiting,” “Better”


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