Raw, daring, sultry: ‘Twisted R&B’

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★★★★★

What do you get when you add 90s style pop and R&B vocals to a dance/grime/ house/dubstep club beat? In a nutshell: Kelela, or the interestingly-coined term ‘twisted R&B’. I am writing this because on no less than three occasions (three too many), I was met with silence and vacant expressions when requesting Kelela’s Cut 4 Me over music store counters. The decline of high street shops aside, thankfully the internet and a friend who owed me a birthday present came to the rescue.

Kelela has produced something so exciting and innovative that the absence of Kelela from HMV employees’ lives pains me deeply. After all, both Björk and Solange Knowles have praised this album – so a salute to those of you already Kelela clued-up.

The Guardian deemed Cut 4 Me seventh in its line-up of the best albums of 2013. Originally a mixtape, it was reissued for 2015, complete with nine new remixes which I actually think are utterly pointless. Kelela’s sound is like a remix in itself, but I suppose the nine new tracks form the deluxe edition of Cut 4 Me, and so they are the reason for the 2015 reissue and subsequently, my recent discovery of Kelela.

DJs from Fade to Mind (a label as well as movement) and the English electronic label Night Slugs teamed up with the Washington-based Kelela to produce tracks like the glorious ‘Send Me Out’, the textured ‘Guns & Synths’ and the well-known ‘Bank Head (Extended)’. In ‘Floor Show’ Kelela sings, “This tug of war is addictive somehow”, reminding me of the tension in her music, the tug between chart, pop vocals and booming dub pulses which are full of twists and turns, fighting to stray from Kelela’s powerfully anchoring falsetto.

Her sultry vocals have a magical, softening eff ect and although the rhythms aren’t always perfectly synced to the vocals, the layering of syncopated sounds and genres typifies this bold album.

Back in 2013, The Guardian applauded Kelela’s raw emotion, but I struggle to hear such feeling in the slick composure of her vocals and fairly tame lyrics. Maybe this is because I haven’t heard much else in the way of ‘twisted R&B’, which apparently can sound robotic. The track ‘A Lie’ probably exhibits the most feeling, and the opening reminds me of the heaviness yet simple sincerity of Rhye. But there’s defi nitely none of the turmoil and fervour of FKA Twigs, whom Kelela has frequently been compared to. With clocks ticking and ropes creaking in a sound that would seamlessly back a Tim Burton feature, FKA Twigs’ sound is far bittier than Kelela, and her dark, sexual themes so much more disturbing.

In this sense, Kelela is less daring, but experimental in a diff erent and more accessible way. Her EP Hallucinogen was released in October, featuring the rich and steady ‘A Message’ and my personal favourite ‘Rewind’, with the popdub hybrid or ‘twisted R&B’ now established as something of a trademark for Kelela.

Kelela’s voice is guaranteed to soothe you, with tracks such as the two interludes ‘Go All Night (Let Me Roll)’ and ‘Go All Night (Let It Burn)’ evoking the mood-music of a decadent art gallery or boutique.

You couldn’t run or dance to this album (although I can think of certain other activities that would suit) but this beautiful limbo that Kelela’s formula off ers is the basis of Cut 4 Me ’s appeal. Five stars? Why not? It’s such a new sound to me – I’m hooked, and eagerly await more from this talented artist.

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