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Kelela Is on Her Own Time

The 34-year-old R&B singer’s debut album, ‘Take Me Apart’, out Friday, is a patiently constructed monument to romance and restlessness

Kelela Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The title track on Take Me Apart, the full-length debut from R&B songstress Kelela, out Friday, is one of the most arresting songs on the album. There’s a constant inner tension that animates the track, which traces a relationship from waking up next to someone, to when hooking up becomes dating, to the moment the third thing happens. On the bridge, she tells her lover exactly how things are going to go: “Don’t say you’re in love, baby / don’t say you’re in love until you take me apart.” Kelela revels in “topping from the bottom,” as she recently told The Fader. “When you demand somebody take you apart, then you’re the boss.” Her “Take Me Apart” paramour must tunnel past (their) idea of Kelela to get acquainted with the whole, complicated person—with fears and quirks and kinks and hopes and plans—underneath. Like the rest of the album’s 14 songs, “Take Me Apart” evokes images of restlessness, romance, mood candles burning to the wick, and whatever else might happen in a bedroom.

Most writing about Kelela’s projects—her debut 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, or the Hallucinogen EP, released two years later—alludes to the singer’s penchant for “’90s nostalgia.” But “Take Me Apart” has a bright, blippy undercurrent that evokes a specific song:

It could’ve been accidental that the song has shades of Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody,” but that seems unlikely, given the evidence: “Everybody Everybody” being one of the greatest jock jams of all time, and therefore worth emulating; Martha Wash being of huge importance to the melding of soulful voices and spacious club music; Kelela having driven a Rent-A-Car from D.C. to New York on several school nights to see Amel Larrieux perform at Blue Note Jazz Club. It’s not even the “renting a car and driving four hours to see the same artist perform” part of the story Kelela recently told Pitchfork that confirms she is too calculated for coincidence. It’s in what she was doing on the drives back:

I would hold my voice recorder under the table and record the show and live. Then I would listen to the recording in the car on the way back, studying it.There is an intersection between jazz and R&B that Amel laid out so beautifully for everybody. Her approach to making songs was all I really cared about at that time, I could sing them and feel her power in pretty overt ways.

One of Larrieux’s biggest songs was the second single from her debut album Infinite Possibilities. “Sweet Misery”—the mental accounting of whether the joy is worth the pain—doesn’t rise above a simmer until the bridge two minutes in. It’s then it becomes clear that any fragility in Larrieux’s soprano there was by choice. Kelela’s can be similarly aching and forceful (see “Enough”), or smoky and out of reach (“Bluff”)—on the same song, even (“Altadena”). To say she has a knack for songcraft would undersell the amount of work and time that went into building the skill. Releasing a debut album at age 34 isn’t unheard of, but it implies a certain amount of care—no shortage of hurdles cleared. For Kelela, the stakes were always high; after all, black people don’t have the space to suck: “The urgency in which you have to nail the thing is so high because it’s your ticket out, to get in, to go somewhere.”

Like Larrieux and Wash, Kelela has blended disparate styles—traditional R&B, garage, proggy grime, doom soul, jazz, West Ethiopian music—into a single, consistent sound. “Brandy, but weirder,” is how she once described it, and Take Me Apart is just that, plus tempestuous drums.

On “LMK,” the lead single, Kelela sings about casual, meaningless sex, a thing that some women also like to have sometimes. (Elsewhere in the aforementioned Pitchfork interview: “It’s hard for men to think that a woman is capable of just wanting to get laid without being a ho.”) In the video she cosplays as the once heroically sex-positive Lil Kim circa Kim’s boasting about getting head while she watched cartoons. Kelela mirrors Kim’s steeze, down to the glasses with the faded lenses and obviously the platinum-blond bob.

The single artwork has held to a steady aesthetic: Kelela’s name, in gold-stenciled Ge’ez letters (the script used to write Amharic, the official language of her parents’ native Ethiopia), superimposed over bare skin. The album cover reveals the skin to be hers, as she sits naked, in repose, her beaded, waist-length dreads leaving the most private stuff to the imagination. It beckons you into a project that can be coy (“Truth or Dare,” which toes the tightrope of a new flirtation) or boldly personal (“Turn to Dust,” about the peril in always having something to say).

Vulnerability is a hefty buy-in. And once there, the game of love, as Santana once articulated through Michelle Branch (who also has a song called “Sweet Misery”) is fucking difficult. Even more so when you’re a woman, and a black woman, who is second generation, in this America, at that. Loving, being loved, being in love, how best to attempt these daring acts of generosity and congress without literally dying of them: These are all themes that Kelela has thought a lot about. That much is made plain in the purpose and tact with which she expresses feeling. Especially longing, sexual or otherwise. Take, for instance, the writing on “S.O.S.”:

I don’t take it lightly,
That you’re far away,
But I need it nightly,
When I’m full I take another,
Never been so greedy with a lover

Save for “Turn to Dust,” which brings out the string section for a soaring close, the production on Take Me Apart has the turbulent, engrossing, saturated engineering that now, four years on, comes to mind when you think “Kelela.” Romy Madley Croft (of the xx) pitched in, as did Arca, with whom she also worked on her Hallucinogen EP (along with DJ Dahi, who I have to mention, because “All the Way Down” still bangs). There’s also Kingdom, Bok Bok, and Jam City, the standbys of the Los Angeles underground music label Fade to Mind, which was behind Kelela’s breakout tape Cut 4 Me. Their sound is always vast and showy, somehow both a long way off from now and aggressively in the moment.

In retrospect, it made perfect sense for “Frontline” to premiere during the penultimate episode of Insecure’s second season. The first song on Take Me Apart is a decision to leave—someone, something, somewhere, all of the above. It bubbles up during a closing medley of scenes that illustrate different kinds of emotional labor (or for the layperson, who is often male, “the work of caring”). As “Frontline” comes in on Insecure, Molly weighs the pros and cons of a new dalliance; Aparna comforts Lawrence back from of his heightened, angry edge after a confrontation with his ex; Issa destroys her apartment over a rent increase, her job, and her dissolving love life:

There’s a place you hold I left behind
I’m finished
Since you took your time, you should know why I’m quitting

The song ends similar to how it begins: another bomb on the way out of the door, this time more enervated and firm after five minutes, or 34 years, of windy clarification. “I couldn’t wait for you, I couldn’t wait for you.” The outro is heels clicking along the pavement to a car, which speeds off. Kelela has places to be.