This song seemed to come from nowhere last year and end up everywhere. Granted, the key protagonist in the story, Kelela, had been attracting loads of attention from media both niche and mainstream. Her mixtape-slash-album, the gloriously titled Cut 4 Me (thanks to Bieber for popularising that term), had serious cred, and the L.A.-based singer won accolades for doing it all her own way. Essentially a collection of songs with a dream team of producer – in a similar vein to how Cassie did it with RockABye Baby – Cut 4 Me not only showcased Kelela’s voice, but also the depth of her understanding of the scene and extensive rolodex. Dreamy, woozy and out-of-the-box producers abound, from Girl Unit to ‘Bankhead’s co-writer, Brooklyn DJ Kingdom. Interestingly, despite her instrumental stamp being the most enduring, the singer was in no way concerned with labels. She might be the performer, but most of the search results for this song list her as a featured artist. Welcome to the badlands of the Internet. This is especially impressive given that ‘Bankhead’ is one of the most insidiously addictive tracks of the last year.
You can’t begin talking about Kelela without discussing her falsetto. It’s disturbingly eerie and gut-wrenchingly beautiful. You sort of want to veer away from it but feel transfixed at the same time. It’s a quality that can’t be properly described until you hear it, but it’s pretty much the sole reason there’s so much heat being generated around her. The choice of aesthetic and writing are great, too, but they’re not unique. All over the shop there’s artists who would have been popstars in 2003 going underground and resurfacing with grimy alternatives to what they were originally slated to do. Most of them, however, aren’t very talented. Kelela’s melodies, which twist upwards and flare out like streams of weed smoke from a rapper’s nostrils, are something else. ‘Bankhead’ sounds like a lot of music released last year, but she doesn’t. It’s not safe by any stretch of the imagination, almost challenging the late-night bedroom-eyes R&B championed by The Weeknd and contemporaries to do something better and push the envelope melodically.
Given all that, however, it’s surprising how easy it is to play ‘Bankhead’ in almost any context. The extended version plays out beautifully, driven by unobtrusive handclaps and the hissing of quiet machines. It’s a shell of a song that is focused almost entirely on rhythm; there are five or six separate drum tracks for every harmonic one. When Kelela goes for it, particularly in the bridge and second half of the chorus, she’s got pipes and ads-libs that put her up with the heavyweights like Mariah Carey. It may be a work in progress, but it’s a startling way to get there. If this is where Kelela find her feet, imagine what will happen when she starts running.
Kelela ft. Kingdom – ‘Bankhead’