Kelela shines with her fresh contemporary R&B sound on debut album

Chris Duncan

Led by the likes of Frank Ocean, FKA twigs and Anderson .Paak, alternative R&B is arguably the trendiest and most experimental genre in music today. With her newest work, Kelela makes a strong argument that she deserves a place amongst these names.

Hailing from Washington, D.C., Kelela Mizanekristos is a 34-year-old singer-songwriter whose debut mixtape Cut 4 Me stood out with its inventive take on R&B, using original tracks to concoct a remix-esque dance sound. Following her mixtape, the Hallucinogen EP was a more emotional endeavor, tracing a relationship from beginning to end in reverse chronological order. Now, with her long-awaited debut album Take Me Apart, Kelela dives head-on into several genres, crafting a cohesive and futuristic-sounding project.

Aside from the aforementioned artists and a few others, most alternative R&B in recent memory falls short of its lofty goals because of an incessant focus on mysterious sexuality, using fans’ curiosities and a dark ambiance to draw in the listener but delivering a lethargic sound on top of unenthusiastic lyrics. In contrast, Take Me Apart has power behind almost every single word, narrowing in on the human experience and how relationships tie into what it means to be vulnerable and strong.

Setting the foundation for an engaging album, Kelela uses luscious melodies and spacey sounds on each track to set the mood. The instrumentation of this record is forward, but still leaves much to be explored. Songs such as “Blue Light” and “Turn to Dust” use everything from hard-hitting beats to strings and synths to create atmospheric sounds and intimate listening, prefect for Kelela’s voice and tone. Take Me Apart even fills the gaps that Hallucinogen revealed in Kelela’s sound. Her EP was interesting, but suffered from a slow pace, uneven intensity and far too much echo on a few songs. In comparison, Take Me Apart flows with ease, moving from track to track without many hiccups and encouraging curiosity along the way.

Vocally, Kelela takes many of her cues from R&B greats, honing her inner Janet Jackson and Aaliyah, bringing strong and passionate vocal performances to an already engaging album. Occasionally Kelela’s thoughts become too fragmented and get lost in the ever-swirling storm of each song, but more often than not they shine through like the sun right after a heavy rainfall. “LMK” has a bit too much echo for some tastes, but Kelela’s performance more than makes up for the song’s production and mixing. The shortened “Jupiter” and “Bluff” contain Kelela’s most straightforward vocals on the entire album, accompanied by a general lack of effects and simple instrumentation.

A couple of listens to Take Me Apart make the album’s passion apparent, but it also reveals a few minor issues. The auto-tune and reverb on “Onanon” nearly ruin the song’s powerful message, and “Altadena” feels like a weak ending in comparison to this LP’s stronger tracks. However, these faults can be easily forgiven considering how strong and cohesive this LP is.

Minor slipups aside, Take Me Apart is a powerful record. Kelela finally found the perfect balance of her dance-influenced beats and vocal style to create a true work of art. Although it might not be as catchy or pop-oriented as some of her competition, Take Me Apart shines at the right moments to make it worth anyone’s time.