Photo via Warp Records

Kelela Trades Hooks for Atmosphere on Sensuous ‘Raven’

Returning from a five-year hiatus, Kelela’s Raven isn’t an explosive comeback for the alternative R&B singer but a downtempo reflection.

Warp Records
10 February 2023

Since her breakthrough mixtape, Kelela has always been an artist unafraid to make the music she wants. Forward-thinking yet nostalgic, her distinctive sound owes as much to UK dance music as it does 1990s R&B. Returning from a five-year hiatus, Raven is not an explosive comeback but a downtempo reflection.

As understated as it is elusive, Kelela’s sophomore full-length has neither the frenetic club-ready energy of her Cut 4 Me mixtape nor the pop futurism of her Hallucinogen EP or debut Take Me Apart. Kelela’s blend of vocals, at times emotive and soulful and others mysterious and alluring, and varied, genre-bending electronic production is still here. However, the songs this time feel better suited to smokey rooms than underground raves. 

Atmosphere, sensuality, and contemplation define Raven. Breakbeat, garage, and drum ‘n’ bass beats are paired with misty synths and ethereal vocals, a familiar but effective formula. The problem is that the album often feels without direction, and a lack of standout tracks and experimentation beyond these sounds can leave a somewhat unmemorable listening experience.

Still, Raven is not without great moments. “Let It Go” is a particular early highlight, where Kelela’s sweet croon soars over lush chords, subtle strings, smooth bass, and classic 808 cowbells. “Missed Call” is one of the more upbeat and breezy tracks, propelled by drum’ n’ bass breakbeats, sub-bass, and a simple yet effective guitar loop. 

The title track is perhaps the most impressive offering on the record, however, and truly showcases not only Kelela’s abilities but her extensive and eclectic palette of sounds and beats. “Took all my labor, don’t tell me that I’m strong,” Kelela sings in this rousing meditation on rebirth and reclamation, all gradually building to a thrilling crescendo of thumping drums and glassy synths. 

In a recent interview with Billboard, the Ethiopian-American singer spoke of how the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests inspired her to take time away to “rethink this whole fucking thing and create a more liberatory model for myself”. She wrote to individuals and companies with whom she had business and, in some instances, parted ways. 

Raven emerges as a result of this new direction, aiming to serve both Kelela’s needs as an artist and her audience and community. “The people who are there in the front row and always have been,” she says, “Queer black people.” This is an admirable stance to take, and not without its risks. It also bears saying that there may well be much on the album that could be missed or otherwise disregarded by the kinds of listeners Kelela is not aiming to target. 

However, it does feel like Raven could do more to showcase these intentions. The inclusion of trans rapper Rahrah Gabor on “Closure” is a fun and exciting change of pace but is still a small interlude on a record that is otherwise without features. Likewise, from its production choices, lyrical and thematic content, and overall aesthetic, Raven is less a bold artistic statement than its author might wish to convey. 

Despite its flaws, Raven is still a worthwhile listen. Kelela’s return is worth celebrating, as is her approach and ownership of her artistry and platform. Hopefully, these ambitions can be better articulated in future projects, where liberation might be more fully realized through music and perspective. 

RATING 6 / 10