Through her innovative approach to dancefloor-infused r&b, Ethipoian-Amrican singer and songwriter Kelela has challenged the boundaries of the genre since her 2013 Ep Cut 4 Me. On that mixtape, an atmosphere was set, smooth and refined, yet striking and planned. It was a sound honed over subsequent EP Hallucinogen (2015) and the unforgettable debut album Take Me Apart (2017).
As one of the few women of color who pioneered the contemporary sounds of dance/r&b with a future tinge, the era post Take Me Apart has been volatile. Though hardly stable, that album reveled in the freneticism of escape. But, these days, the reveling has turned to volatility. Volatility for the very future mentioned. Not simply for its appearance but whether or not its actual existence remains a certainty. From Trump to global demonstrations against white supremacy to superpower proxy wars to the ever-creeping nature of predatory capitalism, the future is no longer guaranteed. Kelela has felt it, and so comes Raven - after nearly six years in the dark, her sophomore Lp.
Produced by ambient duo OCA and LSDXOXO, Raven does not feature the same freneticism as Take Me Apart or previous work, including the superb remix collection of that album. Instead, though no less intricate in its production, its primary feeling is aquatic. Smooth, silky and flowing, taking the intimate nature of Kelela's futuristic soprano but subduing emotion with a take-flight air of longing. Across its 15 tracks, Kelela explores places of identity within the music industry, describing the project as "an affirmation of Black femme perspective in the midst of systemic erasure and the sound of our vulnerability turned to power."
Raven has so far seen a trio of singles. Its first, Washed Away, which opens the Lp, features few discernible lyrics over a drum-less foundation, "Washed away / Far away. The "fare away" motif leads into Happy Ending as its opening line. It is also the first track produced (alongside Bambii) by LSDXOXO. Happy Ending is a rapturous club crush fuelled by sexual tension levels and the kick-off to Raven's dancefloor-oriented offerings.
Unlike Washed Away, its vocal work is rich and full-bodied. Its ambient synth melody juxtaposes a more intricately constructed UKG beat. Then, there is On the Run, which boasts Kaytranada among its producers. Another (a)typical dance track, its Afro-Carribbean elements flirt with the push and pull of romance in clubland. Another motif that lends itself throughout Raven. That is, until the sonic come-down of its sixth-track, Closure (Oh, it’s a sauna / Here if you wanna / It’s 2 AM and we made it / Everybody faded), and eighth, Fooley – bookended with the rare hip-hop interlude of Closure, coming from New York rapper Rahrah Gabor.
The range of breakbeats, from techno to drum & bass to electro, abound throughout Raven. And, aside from the singles, its narrative forms across its cracks and crevices. These represent the distances of the entire album's ethos, and, though stated unintentionally, the constant "far away" refrain enters the fray. Whether in a relationship or self-identity, the Kelela of 2023 seeks, contemplates, and self-affirmations. Its structure can be viewed in two acts, with the aforementioned Fooley as a transition point (“far away from sorrow”). The transition - from the romance in, and with, queer rave spaces to the demand to be heard as a figure of the marginalised. Here, tracks like Bruises or the album's title track represent this. The former states:
We came to destroy. - Kelela
Throughout its 15 tracks, Raven is a superb addition to one of the most refreshing voices in contemporary music. It is a complete narrative of love, longing, and identity - equally existing on the dancefloor, in the bedroom, and on the streets. It is a rare occurrence where, like the films of Bela Tarr, every track (i.e., frame) represents an entire narrative within itself. While played as a whole, it presents an epic, layered experience of those marginalized in love and lust, simply trying to stay above water.