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On “Frontline,” Kelela Fills Her Largest Canvas Yet

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 27: Singer Kelela performs onstage during FYF Fest 2016 at Los Angeles Sports Arena on August 27, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for FYF)

On Cut 4 Me, her still-great debut mixtape from 2013, Kelela emerged with a sound and identity that were more or less fully formed. With an airy voice and nimble melodic sensibility, she sang about the wounds and rewards of 21st-century love, daringly navigating beats that whizzed and stuttered like the technology mediating so many of our relationships today. She and her stable of producers fused the heartache of contemporary R&B with the futuristic sounds of the dance-music underground, continuing where Aaliyah and Timberland, or Ciara and Jazze Pha, left off. The music Kelela has released since then–much of it on 2015’s well-received Hallucinogen EP–hasn’t drastically altered that sound, but brought it into focus, with snares that hit harder, bass that throbs more resonantly, a voice that sits confidently at the center of the mix.

On “Frontline,” the first track from her forthcoming first proper album Take Me Apart, Kelela uses those newly sharpened sonics toward an expanded compositional ambition. At nearly six minutes, it’s not quite the longest song in her catalog so far, but it operates on a grander scale. Things start minimally, with Kelela brooding slowly over noirish muted synths from longtime collaborator Jam City. Suddenly, the drums kick in, and she switches to a staccato Atlanta-style flow. From there, it’s all forward propulsion–appropriate for a song about hopping in your car and driving away from a stagnant relationship.

The real revelation of “Frontline” comes in its second half, when Kelela begins stacking falsetto clones of herself on top of the main vocal track, taking the harmonic tradition of her ’90s and ’00s R&B forebears to a dreamy extreme. At several points, the song feels like it’s about to explode into ecstatic color, but she and Jam City withhold full catharsis, cutting the drums just when the vocals reach their transcendent height. Beginning with the excellent single “Bank Head,” Kelela has always had a gift for conveying feeling through restraint. Though she may be working on a bigger and louder stage now than ever before, “Frontline” shows that she hasn’t forgotten the intimate power of quiet.