It’s a rare feat that Kelela Mizanekristos has accomplished, establishing herself as such a driving force in contemporary electronic and R&B music over the past several years, all without releasing an official debut. I wrote something similar about Sampha’s Process earlier this year, though by comparison, Kelela’s slow-burning ascension has been driven less by high-profile collaborations and more by the peripheral creep of her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me and 2015’s Hallucinogen EP (though her Danny Brown and Solange features last year certainly helped as well). Even as her work and aesthetic has informed the likes of artistic giants like FKA twigs, however, Kelela has up until now been an influencer largely from the shadows.
With Take Me Apart, she now pole-vaults herself into the center of the conversation, producing an ambitious and lovingly cultivated debut LP as opulent as it is inventive. The album’s sound mainly picks up where the Hallucinogen highlight “Rewind” left off, veering slightly away from her more experimental and glitchy side in favor of sleek, emotive, subtly retro pop songs.
There is little here as confrontational and jarring as, say, Cut 4 Me‘s “Enemy”, which admittedly some fans might miss. Instead, opening track “Frontline” is perhaps the best representation of the album as a whole, a viscous, sinewy R&B song that nails each of its hooks with radio-worthy precision. Combined with “Waitin”, Take Me Apart first introduces itself as a notably polished and relatively more straightforward affair compared with its predecessors.
That said, Kelela can only resist dragging the album to its sonic left for so long. “Enough” spirals off its centripetal axis altogether, Kelela’s spliced vocals dueling with unmoored cascades of percussion, like a pop song collapsing in on itself. This more overt experimentation is not necessarily the defining characteristic for the record in all, which instead sounds like it has its sights set on massive pop success. Still, Kelela finds ways to weave a more deconstructed aesthetic throughout, albeit in subtle and measured ways.
The excellent “Better” is a case in point: the song starts off as a sensitive, ’90s-inflected R&B ballad, Kelela’s delivery dialing up the sweetness and ruefulness alike. But three minutes in, after the listener has had ample time to grow complacent with the song as it is, a chilly, metallic beat surfaces and abruptly pulls things in a more turbulent direction.
Indeed, while Take Me Apart has mostly smooth edges, it ultimately proves itself to be a versatile and varied listen. With its densely processed vocal hook, “Blue Light” sounds simultaneously like it could have been a Weeknd or Travis Scott song, channeling the intersection of R&B and hip-hop in a way that sounds thoroughly contemporary. “LMK” introduces scorched, robotic synths to the album’s sound palette, while “Onanon” centralizes the insistent melody of its chorus above all else. Listening to Take Me Apart often feels like intercepting radio waves from Venus, a subtly warped, uncanny reflection of pop music in 2017.
While not as attention-grabbing, however, many of the album’s best moments are those where the dense production steps back and allows Kelela’s soft, pure voice to come to the forefront. Along with the aforementioned “Better”, songs like the lush, poignant “Turn to Dust”, the sentimental “Altadena”, and the theremin-like croon of “Jupiter” provide some of the most gorgeous and lasting moments on the record. Take Me Apart is genuinely an album without low points, striking a balance between the allure of mainstream pop and the inventiveness of its fringes. Kelela has produced a debut that somehow manages to evoke megastar crooners from decades past, cyborgs from the future, and, unmistakably, the defining sounds of pop music’s present.