Kelela’s music has always been flooded in layers. But while the artful, forward-thinking nature of her alternative R&B has been the center of discussion ever since she broke out with the 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, what renders her approach so unique has just as much to do with the intricate ways in which she directs emotional attention. As the worlds she created became broader and more refined, 2015’s Hallucinogen EP and her astounding debut album Take Me Apart treated stylistic innovation as inseparable from matters of the heart, a confluence of genres necessarily attuned to the movement of the body. “I really want to be sexy in a nuanced way,” Kelela Mizanekristos said in a New York Times interview about Raven, her first LP in over five years. “We want our sexy moments to feel one of a kind, that’s why it feels sexy — because you don’t think that it’s run of the mill.”
Kelela’s commitment to that goal – and the implicit belief that those physical and emotional nuances are not only personal but shared among communities – imbues Raven with a vivid sense of purpose. The hour-long record is her most deeply, if not fully, realized effort to date; “deeper than fantasy” is how she describes the love she sinks into, an ideal that grounds and reverberates through Raven even when it dips into more surreal territory. Kelela repeats the word “away” time and time again, and though she still makes otherworldly music you can lose yourself in, it’s not a vehicle for escape so much as freedom – and she knows exactly how to use it. Above all, Raven is a showcase for Kelela’s grasp on dynamics, the romantic push-and-pull she expertly translates into songs that pulse and thrum and bang. “We’re intertwined babe,” she sings on ‘Happy Ending’, its breakbeats briefly receding as she affirms her desire: “I’m wanting more more more more more more.”
But there’s obstacles on the way: if there’s euphoria in Raven, it’s both fuelled and masked by the sexual tension that surrounds it. The recurrence of away speaks to the album’s running theme: a constant misalignment between people that prevents them from staying together, though it’s clearly one person who’s responsible for perpetuating the distance. “Where you hidin’?” Kelela asks with a sort of playful sensuality on ‘Let It Go’, as rippling bass gives way to a tender wave of optimism: “We’re together now/ It’s just a stormy cloud.” When the question resurfaces towards the end of the album, however, the atmosphere is brooding and despondent, the word for it heavier: ‘Divorce’. Kelela sounds defeated, alone, suffocating; even as the album’s shortest song, its lingering effect warps your perception of time. And while it comes into contrast with the previous song, ‘Sorbet’ – which is both the longest track and one that radiates intimacy – it doesn’t come as a surprise. ‘Sorbet’ (quite literally) delivers the climax Raven has been building up to, but it’s impossible to ignore the conflicting thought that intrudes and echoes in the background: “I don’t know where we are though.”
Still, Kelela ensures the journey is as complex as it is rewarding. She works with a small but talented cast of collaborators, employing their distinct touch to create not just a varied but immersive experience. With glacial synths pushing up against thick bass and fluid percussion, the LSDXOXO-produced ‘Closure’, featuring additional production from Bambii and a guest verse by Rahrah Gabor, stages its affair on a body-to-body level. “It’s a body party, you’re invited,” Kelela sings, before opening things up and extending her empathy on the more outward-facing ‘Contact’: “Loneliness I see in your eyes/ It might just render you blind/ Been getting harder these days/ Contact we just have to make.” Then she plunges further inward, floating through the subconscious on ‘Fooley’ and the shapeshifting title track.
Raven is steeped in water-related imagery, but it’s in the titular metaphor that Kelela wields the most power: “A raven is reborn/ They tried to break her/ There’s nothing here to mourn.” That strength is a quality she craves both for herself and in love, and on ‘Enough for Love’, her determination turns her language from poetic to starkly confrontational. There’s not much room for interpretation: She demands answers about her lover’s absence, seeing the pain but asking if they’re tough enough to love through it. Finally, she issues a warning: “I’m holding on so tight/ But you can’t free-ride for longer.” Whether or not they end up drifting apart, you get the sense that Kelela is here to take stock of her growth, more present than ever.