“It’s topping from the bottom,” is how singer-songwriter Kelela described the subject matter of the title track of her debut album, Take Me Apart in an interview with Fader. The concept isn’t exactly novel, but the quote is telling—Kelela’s mind-expanding album of avant R&B is never not multivalent. Ambiance via thick synths and field sounds of rain and traffic intertwines with the intense rhythms of old-school electro, drum and bass, and bottom-heavy slow jams. Kelela’s sweet voice flutters over it all, her words curlicue into coos as her lyrics probe the truth beyond the emotion, the meaning beyond what’s said. The gorgeous, largely beat-free “Better” tells the story of an underwhelming reunion after a breakup, and regarding the time spent apart in between Kelela wonders, “Didn’t it make you better? / Aren’t we better now? / I know it made me better / Aren’t we better now?” Too sensitive to be didactic, here and on most of Take Me Apart, Kelela is unmistakably in control of the world she creates. The rare instances of expressed vulnerability come with caveats: “Although I’ve hardened / Darling, my guard is down” she sings in “Blue Light.” As she also said to Fader: “When you demand somebody take you apart, then you’re the boss.”
This means when she is completely laid bare, she has the power to stun: In the also beat-less “Turn To Dust” she sings, “One look at you and / I turn to dust,” transmitting exactly how that feels to her now pulverized audience.
Like peak-Björk, alien sounds and everyday experiences fuse on Take Me Apart. The lead single “LMK” pulsates an 808 clap and sports a sunny melody that would sound at home on a ‘90s SWV record, though its synthesized, decaying bass line regularly wobbles out of key. Bops rarely are built on this kind of tension. In another Fader piece, Kelela said that the song is about “a man who’s being weird instead of being honest.” So great is Kelela’s power that she renders the prosaic astonishing.
To Essence, Kelela invoked Janet Jackson when discussing Take Me Apart. “It’s familiar and, sort of, far off in a way. What I’m doing is innovative, but it’s not new—Black women have performing this kind of music for years,” she said. While none of it sounds much like vintage Jam & Lewis productions, per se, much of Take Me Apart—produced with the likes of Jam City, Kingdom, and Arca—has a similar flattering effect of the work those producers did with Janet. Kelela’s older work, including her beloved 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, could be so stark—dissonant, clanking beats chafing her bare voice with little melodic support. The sound of Take Me Apart is richer, with its strong melodic synth support and flare for piling on harmonies to uplift Kelela’s main vocal. It’s the most well-fitting sonic outfit she’s ever donned.
That Kelela refers to her music as R&B is a great thing for the genre. While many black artists have voiced frustration by feeling, per a recent Pitchfork headline, “boxed in” by the association, Kelela sounds nothing less than free on Take Me Apart. There’s no right way to do it—you can see a label as limiting (or flat-out inaccurate) or you can exert your will to expand its definition. R&B is such an elastic category—the most forward-thinking commercial genre, really—that it always benefits from those who come in and stretch it to their unique shape, putting it together and taking it apart.