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.