Kelela, “Take Me Apart”

Kelela
Take Me Apart
WARP
7/10

By most any reckoning, Kelela’s Take Me Apart is as steely and futuristic as R&B gets—so why does it feel like such a throwback? Perhaps because it uses studio craft to amplify and interrogate the singer’s emotional state as ably as any R&B record made this side of Aaliyah, which turned sixteen this year. (You could just as easily draw a line between this album’s humanizing sound effects and the digitized interior monologues of classic Björk albums, too.) Or perhaps it’s because the album’s tension between sleek, modern sound and beating-heart humanity reveals what’s always been great about R&B: that it wears its emotions on its sleeve and provides a conduit for deep feeling.

This is the first full-length from Kelela, though it’s not exactly her debut. She’s released a well-received EP and mixtape, she sang hooks for Gorillaz, and she guested on Solange’s A Seat at the Table, a record that gives some hints about this one’s mix of vulnerability and toughness, brittleness and strength. But where Solange kept her voice and personality at the center of her album, surrounding it with arrangements that sounded modern and organic at the same time, Take Me Apart is almost symphonic in its effect—a dense and atmospheric album where Kelela’s voice is just one part of the broader tapestry.

It works because everything here is so in sync. Kelela describes her album as a kind of emotional journey, with songs touching on heartbreak, loneliness, self-reckoning, and letting go—familiar tropes, but as with any good story, the important thing is the telling. Kelela tells this one with clamorous bangers and floating ballads, all of them adorned with deft electronics that help convey the songs’ emotions.

And those emotions vary: “Take Me Apart” is big and soul-baring, with humming synths and rattling percussion that gain intensity as the song reaches for those show-stopping crests. It sounds both like a declaration and a plea, while “Enough,” a zero-gravity composition of synth washes and harmony vocals, is resolute. “Truth or Dare” is one of the most club-ready cuts, its pulsing sensuality mirrored by the jittery beats.

The tracks and the lyrics are matched with exacting precision, and the emotional intensity is kept high throughout. That’s mostly a blessing and a little bit of a curse: The record cuts deep and its humanity seeps through every mechanized beat, though it can be hard not to wish for a few more cuts like “Better,” which is soulful and spare—a nice respite from the fever pitch of the surrounding songs.

Then again, perhaps not: Take Me Apart is uncompromising, and more than the sum of its parts. Its unwillingness to relent is what makes it feel so tough, even when the singer is displaying the shards of a broken heart. She never sounds like anything but a living, bleeding human.

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