This month, we’re going to live with and experience Raven by Kelela. It’s an album that deserves the extended attention that a ‘This is Not Happening Album of the Month’ receives. It’s a long album, 15 tracks and just over an hour in length. But it’s not just its length that makes it worthy of spending more time with. It’s a sophisticated, rich and complex album that requires thought and reflection to fully appreciate. I get it, I’m making this sound like hard work aren’t I? For me it isn’t hard work, never was and never will be. The rewards are obvious and they come on the very first listen.
But let’s start at the beginning, with the simple question of who Kelela is? Kelela Mizanekristos is a 39 year old Ethiopian American who started releasing music in the early to mid 2010s and her first studio Album ‘Take Me Apart’ in 2017. The album received near universal acclaim (see link to Metacritic 84% review score). Even the most negative review of this album described it as ‘Forward thinking R&B animated by restless innovation’. There is something about her relative maturity as an artist in her 30’s making her way in the industry that can be clearly heard in her music. She speaks of this in interviews “I had to learn how oppression works in the music industry, specific to my experience as a queer black woman.” Her sense of self and agency is palpable. It’s what her music sounds like.
It’s been a long time since 2017. It’s been strange since 2017. There’s a lot of ground to cover and much for an artist to reflect on when creating their 2nd album. So what does Raven bring us? What does it sound like? Last month we had a healthy debate about Genre and Post-Genre when discussing ‘Heavy Heavy’ by Young Fathers. And genre is going to come up again here and it’s another interesting discussion. To categorize and define is to be human, yes it can be reductive but it’s so natural it’s impossible to avoid. What genre is Raven? I have read lots of reviews of Raven, lots of them, all of them? You get from a work of art what you bring to it, your experience of it is in itself a self-portrait. This is proven by one review referring to this album as ‘ambient’ another refers to it as ‘dance’ another as ‘R&B’. In truth (at least my truth) it’s all of those things. I do think that predominantly it is an R&B album, but an R&B album that uses worldly influences and the legacy of 40 years of ‘dance’ music to speak it’s truth. I refer you back to ‘Forward thinking R&B animated by restless innovation’, a comment made about her debut that applies perhaps even more to Raven. This is avant garde, experimental R&B. But I also think it’s ‘not ‘R&B’ enough to interest people who have an aversion to ‘R&B’. Or perhaps it’s enough about ‘dance music’ or ‘ambience’ for people with an aversion to ‘R&B’ to still find it massively rewarding.
Beyond genre descriptions, it’s a very interesting album to talk about. It plays out like a late 90’s or early 00’s post-club mix. Its eclectic-ness comes from its exploration of genre but it’s tied together tightly and cohesively with the single minded vision of a true artist. Some tracks feel like you’re on the dance floor, some feel like you’ve left the dance floor but you’re still in the club, you’re still in the realm of that experience but somewhat dislocated from the drive of the main room. Some tracks feel like the woozy, trippy, half connected experience of a post-club taxi or train ride home. Other tracks feel like a post-night-early-AM intimate sexual experience.
Dance floor energy is intwined with ambient comedowns but always in a way that perfectly meshes these experiences and never feels disjointed or anything other than perfectly curated (back to the post-club-mix vibe). The build of tension and it’s subsequent release is a recurring theme and it is a theme that is explored to perfection.
The overwhelming feeling that I get from experiencing this album is one of immersion. I can think of few more immersive albums. If you can humour me while I make a small semantic detour … I think perhaps ‘submerge’ is more accurate than ‘immerse’. Its close to impossible not to use water-based simile and metaphor to describe this album. It is inherently moist (!!!). It’s fluid, sweaty, flowing, dripping, at times mist-like in it’s ambience and then tidal in it’s shear power. You get the point, this is an album that you can actually drown in.
One thing I love about this album is that despite the 6 year wait since Kelela’s last album, this was recorded in a fortnight in Berlin. Obviously post production can be added but there is something in this compressed recording period that can be heard and benefits the albums cohesiveness. This cohesiveness belies the vast list of producers that worked on this album (Kelela, Asmara Yo van Lenz, LSDXOXO Bambii, Florian, TM Zeisig, Brandon Peralta, Kaytranada Khalí Carela, AceMo Fauzia, Paris Strother Badsista Mocky). The only way that that there can be this many different artists contributing to something that sounds this cohesive is for someone to be in total control of the vision. It is clear that this clarity of vision is Kelela’s.
I’ve written this early in the month, before my thoughts and feelings have fully formed. I hope this introduction is a useful doorway into the album. Somethings that I’ve not even mentioned that are worth thinking about;
- Her voice … wow
- The song writing …
- How the lyrics reflect the global experience since her debut
- The sequencing of the tracks … and the side A / side B structure
- The opening track / closing track perfection
- … there is more but I will leave you to find it
For me Raven is a work of rare genius. It’s my ‘Album of the Year So Far’. So much so that I am nervous to put this up for discussion. But that’s what we do. Enjoy.
4 thoughts on “April AOTM | Raven | Kelela”
I’ve hesitated to respond to this album because I really wanted to make sure I’ve ‘got’ my response to it, if that makes sense! I’ve been away travelling quite a lot in the last week or so, so I’ve finally had time to listen to it repeatedly, either while running or working out, or during train journeys.
I really enjoyed your write up, Joey, and it’s really helped me understand the process of how this album came about. And you’re absolutely right about the ‘submerge’ theme – it is a very fluid, liquid sound, and it’s evoked in my mind an awful lot of late night/post party vibes, which has been very enjoyable.
But..(you knew there was a but coming, right?)…I’m really struggling to connect in a deep way with a lot of the record. It’s so ethereal and light, it seems to float over my ears like a cloud. It’s extremely pleasant to listen to, but unlike you, I am not having an emotional connection with it. And for me, I’m not sure that I’d agree it’s that musically diverse,, in that personally, there are just too many ambient floaty tunes with a similar vocal delivery that I’m struggling to tell apart. And that’s why I’ve hesitated to write and respond to the record, because I know that, from past experience, records like this can suddenly ‘click’. However I’m beginning to wonder if thats just isn’t going to happen for me.
There are a few real stand out tracks that I LOVE that invoke UK Garage and RnB in the most pleasing way possible – Happy Ending and Contact being the my faves, but how I long for more tracks like that with a bit of energy, and a bit less of the meandering floatiness.
However, I’m going to spend lots of time with the record, and who knows, I might feel completely different in a week’s time….
First and foremost I get why you like this album Joey, though I would argue that some elements of this album are not in my wheel house and are in yours (slow R&B is one of the only music styles that you and I don’t agree on).
I’m still digesting, and don’t think I’m ready to fully go through my thoughts, but in Brother Joseph style I have done some bullet points over the last few weeks of listing to the album:
– She can sing, oh lord can she ever. Her vocals are so on point!
– I love the arranging and production on this album.
– The current is tight. It’s well crafted. The transition from ‘Let It Go’ to ‘On the Run’ is the closest to perfection you can find.
– The nuances throughout this album are interesting throughout, and are all intentional throughout.
– If you start the album from ‘Fooley’, it’s a really good experience for me. The sub bass in my car on that track makes me feeling like I’m 16 again and there’s a couple 10’s in the trunk…. BASS!
– The album fades away after a few tracks. Although individually the tracks are strong, it feels a bit same-ish after a while.
– On the above point, the album could be shorter.
– There are times that this album is very 90’s R&B, I don’t like 90’s R&B.
– When starting the album at ‘Fooley’, I struggle to start the album at it’s natural start without loosing interest.
I’m aiming to be fit and ready for our chat on the podcast, but I’m still largely on a journey with this one.
Last to the party, but having intended to do this a week ago I’ve had a lot more time with the album, in fact I think I’ve gone ‘pretty Joey’ with it, in that time. I’ve waded through it at least once every day, including some ‘B side first’ efforts, 2 walks with genius lyrics and endless background listens while working. I’ve tried to put more hours in to ensure I have a full perspective.
And where do I sit? I would argue I’m bridging the gap between David and you, brother Joey. Unlike Nolan. I like so much of the genre nods and throwbacks to all the music of my teenage and 20s that’s so well evoked here: drum ‘n’ bass, garage, ambient, r’n’b, house…. – and my word is it evoked in all the right ways. Because before I come to my feelings, let’s feel the quality. The production, the vocals, the richness, it really is so well produced, there’s very little on the 15 tracks that doesn’t sound like it’s been warmed up and wrapped in silk. From the first listen it really did hit me how fantastic this record sounded. And I’ve listened to more electronic music albums in the last 25 years that most people have had hot dinners.
And there’s really a lot to love about this album. Kelela is at the heart of it, her vocals flowing through every track like a river, from the watery opener Washed Away (its cute wonky note at the start echoing a record starting on a turntable, a nod to the club sensibility of the album and so many tracks) through bona fide bangers like the LTJ Bukem energy Happy Endings, with its sweaty club feels, or two-step bumping on Contact, or into the sultry soundscapes of Sorbet. It’s at the centre of everything. So much so that, how you feel about it probably hinges on how you feel about the album.
Personally, I think her vocals are majestic, however, what I’ve found over the course of 20+ listens are that they do sometimes feel like things I’ve heard before from across the decades. This isn’t to damn them with faint praise, far from it, but of all the elements of the album, they feel familiar when perhaps I want to hear something a bit different. And also they’re so malleable and elastic that it means I sometimes don’t quite hear the lyrics at the fore, so much are they intertwining with the brilliant music. Having read through the lyrics, if I’m being a bit unfair, I’d say that while the message is clear – love, yearning, club sweat and post-club manoeuvres – they do feel a bit safe and derivative at times. Perhaps we’ve been spoilt with the density and power of Young Fathers before it. And perhaps this is where the ‘message’ hasn’t sunk in for me, because I need to connect with the lyrics too to ‘feel’ an album, especially one as slick and welcoming as this.
It’s odd as this so much of this should be in my wheelhouse. I’m not really an r’n’b guy – as we’ve noted before – but I don’t this as a big r’n’b album. This feels much more pre-club, club and post-club, and in its sequencing it’s a definitive Side A and Side B, where each half is separated by Fooley. There is a ‘at the club’ and an ‘after the club’ vibe here, which I quite like in terms of programming, but it’s not as binary as that. After all, two of my favourite tracks – Raven, with its brooding power and late explosion, the final 90 seconds of which are probably my favourite on the entire record, and after it, the ethereal Bruises, its earworm melody showing Kelela’s clever use of track transitions perfectly, as it almost segues from one to the other. But there’s a definite vibe to each ‘side’ and I like that.
I’ve also read that she had the feeling of almost a DJ set for the record, and i get that, as it flows through each track in a way that is clever and also maintains pace and momentum.
Where I’m confused is that with all of this style, richness, pace and attractiveness, it’s not got its claws into me (yet, I still know it could yet Weather Station it in the last week). Perhaps it is the more r’n’b, slower tracks that don’t fit with me. I love dance music so much – in all its forms – that when the pace comes off I think I do find it loses me at times. Perhaps an album with a few less tracks of 40-45 mins, focusing on the more uptempo stuff, would reel me in more (maybe I need a playlist?). I don’t know. But this is a class piece of work from a focused artist with amazing vocal skills which is a clear vision. You can see it as a cohesive work, and there’s so much to enjoy about it, because when I play it, I never get bored or want to move on. But when it finishes, I find myself thinking of tracks from outside it.
All I’m looking for is the feels, and I’ve got 5 days to find it!
Update: I’m really beginning to enjoy the first part of the album, as more and more tracks get under my skin – up until Contact (Track 7). Then it really starts to fall off, with 3 forgettable tracks in a row, until the excellent Bruises. I’m beginning to think that if you lost those 3 tracks, the album would work SO much better.
Anyway, it’s certainly growing on me…but I still wouldn’t quite say it’s fully landed.