Kelela is a chameleon. Hearing her slither her way across Kingdom’s icy beats on ‘Bankhead’ all those years ago, it was impossible to place the Washington DC native. She sounded both of a time and completely removed from it, a cipher and an influencer of sound. It’s little wonder, then, that the bleeding edge of culture found itself poring over her. From the Night Slugs collective that ran the video game soundscapes across her breakout mixtape, to Solange, Kindness and Blood Orange, R&B’s left-field, no-nonsense innovators gravitate to Kelela. With the release of her debut record, it started to become clear why that is. Kelela’s appeal isn’t so much musical as it is structural. Fittingly, the record is called Take Me Apart. That’s exactly what listening to a Kelela is all about; hearing the pieces fragment and mysteriously arrive back together without any evidence of who is moving them around. And in the case of ‘Altadena’, an album closer so beguiling that tour buddy Solange won’t stop raving about it, it’s a stunning exercise in deconstruction.
2017 has been a renaissance year for the album as exploration. That’s especially true of closers, often the most neglected pieces of work on a record but now more than ever, the most revealing. Take Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DUCKWORTH’, which not only set up the incredible true story of his label boss nearly shooting his Dad 20 years before he was born, but somehow rewinds all the way back to the start. Likewise, ‘Altadena’ is a song that seemingly begins at the end and works backwards. It’s dripping in production from the minute you press play, this wonderful, Teddy Riley-meets-FKA Twigs groove with interlocking synth hi-hats and delayed Roland bass and snares. Before the first minute is up, the main motif is already in play. You can’t miss it, the loping double-tracked melody (‘Nothing to be said or done/Not just me it’s everyone’) that punctuates the empty space. Falsetto on soprano, solos on syncopation and through it all, class. There are many artists playing in ’80s palettes and new jack swing production, but few update, flip it and own it like Kelela. Her confidence carries over the smoothness of the track, allowing her to push it as the layers fall off.
My favourite part of this song is the end, which feels like the beginning. To get there, we hit Kelela’s sweet spot; a bridge that holds on few notes and lets the timbre of her voice pierce through a wall of harmonies. It’s the richest, thickest point of the arrangement, and you’d expect it to be the end. But instead, from booming bass and cool synths emerges a solitary grand piano and voice, the sound of a composition stripping down to its naked elements. It’s the most perfect, arresting moment on the entire album, a synthesis of everything Kelela is about, not just how she is marketed. To hear it is to know that she belongs on the same pedestal reserved for her peers and that it isn’t long until she gets there. Her vocal ad-libs across the final two minutes of this song rank up there with some of the best I’ve heard in years; not just trickery or melismas, but hard leans onto blue notes, finding a sweet spot in dissonance and grit. It’s a talent we shouldn’t take for granted. Rarely do artists take themselves apart so effectively, especially on their first proper label outing.
Kelela is a chameleon; every colour is more gorgeous than the next.