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The meditative, ambient calm of Kelela's 'Raven'

Kelela's emotional remove paired with the ambiguity created by her vocal performance shifts this album from narrative-telling to mood-building.
Photo by Alima Lee
Kelela's emotional remove paired with the ambiguity created by her vocal performance shifts this album from narrative-telling to mood-building.

Since releasing her debut mixtape, CUT 4 ME, in 2013, the singer Kelela has always innovated at the crossroads of left-field R&B and forward-thinking electronic music. After six years away, she returns to a pop-music landscape that is focused on honoring the Black queer artists who invented house music as a refuge and established the clubs where the music was played as safe havens, spaces to celebrate, grieve and build community all at once. Beyoncé's Renaissance, Dua Saleh's Crossover and Shygirl's work with Arca and the late SOPHIE are just some examples of contemporary music existing at the intersection Kelela inhabits. Events like Hood Rave and Papi Juice similarly continue to celebrate the dancefloor as a place of freedom and safety for queer people of color. In this context, Kelela is less a pioneer than an elder now, someone with nothing to prove, who is making music for and about herself —and her communities.

On her excellent 2017 debut album, Take Me Apart, Kelela charted the tumultuous, non-linear process of falling out of love and opening yourself up to a new relationship. While the perspective was firmly hers, the sense of self Kelela presented was relational. She sought to explicate who she was and what she wanted in these partnerships, and how that self can shift and morph depending on the situation. But on her follow-up, Raven, the emotional chaos that defined Take Me Apart has been replaced with a meditative calmness. While she still longs for love and experiences the ebb and flow of romantic desire, Kelela now sings with the perspective of someone observing things happen to her rather than someone consumed by feeling them. Sonically, the glitchy, futuristic beats that gave her work so much propulsion have been replaced with more diffuse, ambient and club mixes that flow into each other. If Kelela was taking herself apart before, she is now presenting a unified and independent version of herself.

Kelela actively maintains a sense of distance from the audience throughout the album. The first words she sings on opener "Washed Away" are "far away," her vocals dissolving across the droning synth like cotton candy on your tongue, and on album closer "Far Away," she repeats the words as a mantra, her gossamer falsetto once again evaporating across the mix. "Fooley" echoes the phrase over a foreboding mix of drums and synths. When she's not explicitly singing about feeling far away, Kelela is reflecting on the distance she feels from her lovers or her impulse to let go of situations that aren't working. This sense of detachedness doesn't feel like a lament so much as a balm. Rather than investing in situations or people who hurt her, Kelela finds solace and healing in solitude.

Though the album is the result of Kelela turning inwards and distancing herself from the world, there's still a sense of community behind these songs. She has always been aware that her hybrid music appeals to both Black and white audiences, but she wants Raven to resonate with Black queer listeners first and foremost. She spent much of 2019 creating a syllabus of texts by Black theorists like bell hooks, Kandis Williams and Octavia Butler and broke ties with business partners who weren't politically aligned with her. Though many of the lyrics on Raven came from improvisation, they are informed by this period of intensive study and boundary-setting, so they feel like free-associations from a mind centered and deeply focused on rejuvenation. On the title track, she sings, "A raven is reborn / They tried to break her / There's nothing here to mourn," asserting her independence and resilience as she reminds those who have wronged her not to performatively "tell me that I'm strong." And on "Holier," she disengages with people who are trying to put her down, instead choosing to float away and "go where they hold me down."

What's more, Kelela was able to take the time and space she needed to understand herself because she knew that her fans would value and celebrate her even with distance. It's an ethos that is based in queerness and vulnerability for her, that is, "rooted in being part of a club where everybody wears their hearts on their sleeves ... a type of queer commentary where you are seen even in the margins." To be seen even when you're hiding from most of the world, to feel safe and supported even in your absence and your solitude — that is the gift of the community that Kelela fosters and prioritizes.

On all of these tracks, Kelela's words stretch and contort into gorgeous peaks and valleys of melody. Inspired by secondhand stories of navigating a second language — the way her mother and her friends tried to imprecisely recreate English as children in Ethiopia — Kelela used much of the lyricism on the album as a way to relay sounds and textures rather than just syntax. Her emotional remove paired with the ambiguity created by her vocal performance shifts this album from narrative-telling to mood-building. Rather than relaying the specifics of a conversation with someone, these songs capture the feeling of mist on your skin during a late night walk or bath water easing away the tension of the day.

Water recurs across Raven. On one hand, it is a textural element: the references to mist, rain and floating evoke a feeling of dewy dissociation that mirrors the ambient sound bath established throughout the album. Water is also a surface under which Kelela submerges herself, as well as a means of expressing pleasure. She has said that her goal with this album is to create a work that reminds Black listeners of their expansiveness. Fittingly, water is a substance that cannot be contained. It slips through your fingers and evaporates into the air around you. It carves canyons and gently cleanses the body and soul. In linking her perspective shift on this album to water, Kelela presents herself as capable of both the ocean's grandiosity and the fog's vaporous omnipresence.

On the album cover, it's unclear if Kelela is emerging, reborn from the water surrounding her or sinking into it, using it to isolate herself from the world around her. Perhaps it's both at once: In pulling away, nurturing herself, and ultimately offering a self defined by her boundaries, she has re-emerged more authentically, more conscientiously than ever before.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vrinda Jagota
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