Kelela : Raven

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A decade ago, Kelela introduced herself as an artist navigating various musical spaces at once. Her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me was rooted in contemporary electronic music—with a heavy presence from UK bass producers like Girl Unit and stateside innovators such as Kingdom and Nguzunguzu—with the hooks of pop and songwriting sensibility of R&B. And through her proper debut album Take Me Apart four years later, she solidified that into a signature aesthetic and an even stronger set of songs, shining a beacon toward what felt like the future of pop—released, fittingly, via forward-thinking electronic music outpost Warp. But despite the creative triumph of these early highs, Kelela has since encountered one frustration after another in an industry that continues to uphold backward and outdated perspectives, experiencing sexism and misogynoir and hearing too few voices like her own—Black, femme and queer—within dance music.

In finding that the world she sought wasn’t to be found, Kelela took it upon herself to build it. Raven, Kelela’s sophomore album, is a celebration of the very roots and foundation of dance music culture—one that, despite its disappointing commercial byproducts, was pioneered by unsung Black, queer heroes. Across its 15 tracks, rich in hypnotic production, gorgeous vocal performances and what frequently sound like the best songs in Kelela’s catalog to date, Raven is a rhythmic utopia.

Throughout its 60-plus minutes, Raven is a wondrous sanctuary to enter. Where Take Me Apart took a similar approach through darker, more melancholy moods, Raven often feels as joyful as it is physical and sensorial. Its best moments are, unsurprisingly, often those that are built for dancing. The uptempo breakbeats of “Happy Ending,” the thick and hazy atmosphere of “On the Run,” the old-school house thump of “Contact”—these are songs engineered for instant satisfaction but mete out their rewards over longer term listening, thanks to spectacular production from the likes of LSDXOXO, Kaytranada and Kelela herself. And it’s often in those subtler moments that the songs on Raven really come alive; the beat behind standout “Missed Call” slaps in an almost literal sense, but it’s the licks of jazz guitar that deepen the intoxication.

Raven is, in large part, a more animated and outsized record than its predecessor, but Kelela remains the picture of cool, her range stunning even when punctuated by ellipses. It feels as if Kelela herself is as content to be within the crowd and among the ecstatic throng as she is onstage, though when given a brighter spotlight on an ambient-pop ballad like “Holier,” there’s nothing to distract from her presence. It’s a hypnotic bridge between more climactic, urgent moments, a gorgeously still break before the BPMs kick up again—and once they do, as on the driving pulse of “Bruises,” there’s no choice but to get caught up in the energy.

Label: Warp

Year: 2023

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