Album of the Month: Kelela - Raven
The dance floor is a space that serves many things beyond its simple purpose; in that room, bathed in beams of light and waves of sound, you can find euphoria, liberation, education, and deep emotional places, all wrapped into moving bodies and the music powering them. Kelela has been exploring this world of brain and body combined since her 2013 debut mixtape, constantly innovating and trailblazing with her blend of forward-thinking dance music and soulful R&B sounds. Almost six years after her debut studio album Take Me Apart, club systems and headphones have finally received her latest transmission, called Raven.
Kelela undertook a four-year hiatus from music in the time between albums, with much going on in the world for the duration. In 2019, she issued an informational primer to friends and associates featuring various texts, podcasts, and videos centering on topics like misogynoir, capitalism, toxic masculinity, and Black labor and experience; she took those ideas, along with meditations on what it means to be a queer Black woman in music, especially electronic and dance musics, and synthesized them into the club-ready musical world of Raven. The album flows from top to bottom like one long mix, shifting between propulsive dance songs and expansive, ambient comedowns. After a winding, quasi-improvisational beginning in “Washed Away,” we’re whisked straight into the driving, jungle beat-fueled “Happy Ending,” with lyrics centering on a relationship in turmoil, vague specifics but clear fragments of memory together in tow. In similar drum and bass-inspired worlds, “Contact” details a late night escapade into the southern California clubs, with music taking control and no end in sight. Even in those seemingly carefree moments, we get a glimpse into Kelela’s dancers’ minds: “Loneliness, I see in your eyes / It might just render you blind / Been gettin' harder these days / Contact we just have to make.” More emotional depths are explored in the album’s softer moments, like the title track, flipping the dark bird’s place in common mythology as a symbol of death into one of rebirth, of resilience. These slower tracks are some of the best showcases for Kelela’s soulful, expressive vocals, like in “Divorce,” her voice draped in ethereal synths while she sings of struggle, invoking the Sisyphus myth.
The reference of that ancient story is a poignant one, as Kelela frequently speaks out about her desire to bring queer Black people to the forefront of dance music clubs and the genre itself, as the people who built and advanced this music. That task is not a futile one in Kelela’s hands however, as she continues to push forward with her own work as well as her collaborations. Raven further cements Kelela as the beholder of dance music’s future in tone and culturally, and hopefully when the time comes again for her latest dispatch to emerge, that future comes sooner rather than later.
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