Kelela’s voice is a slow curl of steam rising from the subway grate; it’s a beam of light scraped across a curtain of icicles. You know those latticed lasers that protect the crown jewels in heist movies? Her voice is that too, wavering in place and catching dust motes as they drift.
And what a pleasure to hear a voice like this — expressive, unusual, practically taking shape right in front of us — and to hear it stretched out over the course of an entire album’s worth of music that was made to accommodate its quirks, not just flattened out and racked up alongside a host of other featured vocals over anodyne club-pop productions.
Here, in the year 8 A.B. (that’s After Burial), a huge swath of dance music has almost forgotten what an original voice sounds like. Ever since the reclusive night-bus rider first flipped Ray J, Erykah Badu, and Beyoncé into pitch-shifted specters, we’ve been awash in gauzy, ethereal, reverb-soaked swatches of second-hand voice. Some of those samples are canonical, and some come from crate-diggers’ secret stashes; some make no attempt to hide their origins, while others have been so heavily edited that there’s little context left, just a nugget of grain and breath that’s meant to signify “soul.” Bedroom producers the world over, most of them dudes, have found that there’s no need to step outside their THC-lined protective bubbles and actually interact with living, breathing singers; they just download a Cassie or Ciara a cappella from sites like DJServicePack.com, and they’re off and running, chopping and screwing and chipmunking to their hearts’ delight.
That strategy has netted us some great tunes, sure, but it has yielded far more decidedly ho-hum music in the form of boilerplate deep house repackaged as “bass music” or “U.K. house.” Producers create decent beats, maybe 60 percent of the way towards being an actual track, then compensate for their shortcomings by dragging and dropping whatever ol’ hooks might be lying around.
This has all begun to change as U.K. house has stumbled its way into the charts and the financial stakes have been raised. The A&Rs have gotten involved. You can see it by just glancing at the credits on recent crossover-aimed dance records. The debut album from Disclosure, who got their start chopping up torrented vocals, is bursting with cameos: Sam Smith, AlunaGeorge, Edward Macfarlane, Sasha Keable, Eliza Doolittle, Jamie Woon, Jessie Ware, London Grammar. Hackney junglists-turned-festival overlords Rudimental stacked their debut album with even more featured guests: John Newman, Foxes, Angel Haze, MNEK, Syron, Sinead Harnett, Becky Hill, Emeli Sandé, Alex Clare, Ella Eyre. Some strong voices have emerged, and some stars have been minted, like Katy B, but the overriding impression is that dance-rooted pop is a jumble right now, more about knocking out songs than developing personalities or even signature styles.
The debut mixtape from the Maryland-born, Los Angeles-based singer Kelela flips that model on its head. This is her show, and there’s no doubting that she’s the one in charge. For her beats, she has turned to a handful of producers affiliated with the U.K.’s Night Slugs label and its American sister imprint, Fade to Mind. She gets two tracks apiece out of Bok Bok, Nguzunguzu, Jam City, and Morri$; Girl Unit and Nguzunguzu’s ungooglable Na each turn in one track, and Kingdom delivers three, including “Bank Head,” Kelela’s breakout track from earlier this year. (Her only previous credit — her only other credit at all so far, in fact — was a turn on Teengirl Fantasy’s “EFX” last year.) Despite the presence of seven sous-chefs in the kitchen, though, Cut 4 Me sounds laser-focused, and not just because Kelela and her producers’ chosen style does, in fact, tend to evoke lasers and LEDs and blood-red particle beams.
Some of the cohesion doubtless comes down to the fact that Night Slugs and Fade to Mind have such a clearly defined aesthetic — a brittle, hollow sound, informed by grime and techno and R&B, that for a time was frequently compared to the hard, cold glow of fluorescent tubes; a sound littered with broken glass and scraped metal and cocking guns. As the crew has developed its timbral vocabulary, the Night Slugs/Fade to Mind sound has become a synaesthetic gold mine of multi-sensory stimuli. When SPIN interviewed Bok Bok earlier this year, he credited Jam City’s Classical Curves with helping to crystallize the collective’s sound: “He brought a lot of new textures to the table. I think that Slugs is a kind of pool for all of our creativity that individual producers bring something to. Jam City’s album brought all this stuff about chrome and metal and broken glass, and all these different things that we weren’t talking about at the time. We were talking about, maybe, lights and, I don’t know, neon colors and things like that. He brought something new to the table. Since then, there’s been a bit of a phase shift.”
Kelela effects another phase shift, breathing life into the circuit boards and injecting a sense of presence into a music shot full of gaping holes and numbed synapses. There’s been no shortage of hazily hi-tech R&B over the past couple of years, but none of it sounds as eerie or as ominous as Kelela’s does. The music is full of hulking, square-wave bass lines, digital chimes, desiccated claps, and jagged rhythms; synth leads waver queasily around their target pitch, and open-fifth harmonies suggest a faintly Asian air. The singer goes skulking through it like a woman on a mission, changing shape as best suits the particularities of each beat. She shows off her chops on the Kingdom-produced “Send Me Out,” a richly harmonized slow jam that comes closest to approximating traditional R&B; she’s a whisper made flesh on the Morri$-produced “Go All Night,” a floating-on-air sex jam so tantric it makes Usher seem like a one-minute man. She’s not a perfect singer, by any means: She slips off pitch a few times on the opening “Guns & Synths,” although such lapses are a rarity. And she doesn’t necessarily stand out as a lyricist, either. The occasional hook may sink its barb into you (for instance, “You forget my name, but you say it every night,” from the chilling “Floor Show”), but much of the time, it’s the sheer sound of the words that matters, and the shapes they make as they leave her mouth. Her melodies and her cadences, which often interrupt the “natural” flow of the words in interesting ways, are what lodge in your head. And while she and her producers don’t shy away from processing her voice every now and then, she proves again and again that she doesn’t really need it. On “Something Else,” she and her multi-tracked harmonies take the stage for what’s practically an a cappella performance, letting Nguzunguzu drizzle on some DX keys and finger-snaps and otherwise call it a day. That’s no criticism, by the way: “Something Else” offers a quietly unassailable argument for the supremacy of the less-is-more approach.
That could be said for the whole mixtape, in fact — particularly the final two tracks, which help give the 50-minute set of songs the shape and feel of a proper album. Bok Bok’s “A Lie” is practically nothing but slow-moving Rhodes chords, birdsong, and a suggestion of seismic rumble, the perfect frame for Kelela’s absolutely dejected delivery. “It rains every day,” she sings, but the clouds part on the closing “Cherry Coffee,” produced by Jam City. It comes on stealthily, just a sonar bleep rising from deep silence; it’s joined by watery strings and fretless bass and piano, into which she settles like a person exhausted but fundamentally at peace. “Trust me, I’ll feel better / Say it’s over, baby,” she sings; “I keep letting go, but I know you’re holding on.” Maybe that’s why it’s the only song on the mixtape with no hard edges to it, nothing to grasp, nothing to get snagged up on. She sounds free to mold any kind of sound around the contours of her voice, from the spikiest, clammiest club tracks to the sound of leaves sighing.
She sounds like she could go anywhere from here.