It’s been too long since Kelela’s Cut 4 Me redirected airy soul vocals towards underground dance music’s most experimental edge—two years, in fact, and longer since she and producer Kingdom dropped its first game-changing single “Bank Head,” which processed Rhythm & Quad through an anti-gravity chamber.
Two years on, Kelela’s announced a follow-up EP, Hallucinogen, due October 9, and dropped a new single called “Rewind.” This time, she’s back with Kingdom, who produced along with Nugget and Kelela herself, and it hits that perfect groove where perfectly spare, economical electro provides a landing zone for her sweet voice, which is thankfully not submerged at all—they’re produced clear in the mix, cause she knows she’s strong enough to carry the jam. There is a lineage for this one—it’s got the college flow of the aforementioned Rhythm & Quad, the sensual fortitude of Janet Jackson (especially within its whispers and spoken verse), the athletic bounce of Ciara’s early work—but what Kelela and her producers do so well is being informed by history but not repeating it. In a press release, Kelela wrote, “’Is there a place for a weird black girl in this music?’ I had to make sense of these two things inside myself, the color of my voice in all its R&B glory and all the other music that was resonating with me.”
I suppose, in other words, Kelela is very good at being herself, which is unfortunately commendable in this oversaturated era of breathy, heavily effected vocalists who try to disappear themselves beneath trap beats. Even The Weeknd, one of the progenitors of that sound, turned his vocals way up in the mix on his latest album (almost too up, really); to hear a singer like Kelela sound so strong and clear conveys confidence on its own, never mind her mastery of dynamics and her diaphragm voice. It’s very good to have her back.
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Image by Tim Saccenti.