Kelela’s debut masterfully mixes genres

Photo courtesy of Warp Records

On her debut album, Ethiopian-American recording artist and industry newcomer, Kelela shows the world how to make an R&B record that mixes genres. The album is light on the lyricism but never loses its rhythm and blues identity.

“Take Me Apart” arrives after years of Kelela toiling and succeeding in the underground
hip-hop and alternative R&B scene. Her first mixtape “Cut 4 Me” was released in 2013, and her first EP “Hallucinogen” was released in 2015.

In 2016, she collaborated with other industry heavyweights, who contributed significantly to her career as a burgeoning R&B star. Two critically acclaimed albums from last year, Danny Brown’s “Atrocity Exhibition” and Solange’s “A Seat at the Table,” contain features from Kelela.

Gorillaz’s first official studio album in seven years, “Humanz,” also benefits from a feature credit from the talented vocalist. Now, Kelea has succeeded in bringing all of her musical impressions and influences together to offer a
debut album that sounds like a stark redefinition of the entire genre of R&B.

At a time when rhythm and blues is being recreated in several different ways by several different artists every year, the success of “Take Me Apart” lies in the fact that Kelela carves out room for herself in this crowded space by making an album that truly sounds like no other.

While bands, like The Internet and St. Beauty, contribute to a more alternative side of R&B and SZA and Jhené Aiko contribute to a slow, entrancing side, Kelela exists elsewhere. With “Take Me Apart,” Kelela places herself on the side of R&B that is heavily influenced by electronic music, and the genre is much better for it.

Multiple songs on the album sound like they came from the same studio sessions that yielded “Submission,” Kelela’s contribution to Gorillaz’s album. The more powerful songs of the album, coupled with excellent production and layered vocal work, begin to sound like the songs of the three Haim sisters instead of a single R&B vocalist.

The album’s standouts are less standouts than they are standard cross-sections of an excellently crafted debut release. “Enough” features simple lyrics, but the explosive sounds and interplay between the hook’s lyrics and instrumentation create a song that keeps the listener on their toes.

The album’s title track, along with “LMK,” create the same feeling in the same way: concentrated lyrical phrases coupled with pleasant production ultimately make an entire album that never gets boring to the listener in the way that some R&B records do.

While songwriting credits are split between a couple of different writers per song, the album’s production mainstay is Ariel Rechtshaid. This industry veteran got his big break in 2007 after producing “Hey There Delilah” for the Plain White T’s, and he won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance for producing Usher’s song “Climax” in 2013.

Rechshaid’s frequent collaborators include Vampire Weekend, Solange, Adele and HAIM — not surprising when listening to the instrumentation behind each song on “Take Me Apart.”

In 2017, one apparent trend is the endless blending of musical genres. When successful, these unexpected unions are surprising and satisfying. With “Take Me Apart,” Kelela put her immense talent and refined ear for genre-mixing on display, resulting in an R&B album that merits being played again and again.