Credit: Justin French
by Fred Barrett Ledger Line Music

Kelela — Raven

February 24, 2023

It’s been ten years since Kelela’s debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, earned rave reviews She’s since produced a semi-regular output, with her first proper LP, 2017’s outstanding Take Me Apart, garnering acclaim for its futuristic, electro-tinged R&B, as well as Kelela’s powerful, emotionally affecting vocals. On Raven, the second-generation Ethiopian-American continues her genre-bending approach: opener “Washed Away” is a moody, nocturnal piece which was, somewhat surprisingly, chosen as the surprise first single after a sustained radio silence.

Though perhaps “surprising” isn’t so appropriate: left-field turns have essentially been part of Kelela’s M.O. from the start. Her cerebral spin on club music both delves into abstract ambient soundscapes and indulges in the intoxicating breakbeats and sensuous synths of the British electronic underground, namely drum’n’bass and UK garage. Even this album’s most overtly rave-friendly track, the cool-as-ice “Contact,” combines a driving, jungle-infused beat with a sultry vocal delivery. The misty, cavernous dance floor anthem confronts fleeting connections and post-pandemic loneliness, as Kelela describes a highly-charged encounter with a potential lover who’s just as hungry for a connection as she is. “Your hand on my body, the feeling is so right / I’d go all the way if it’s up to me,” she sings, while still making sure to remind her suitor of her independence (“Don’t need your help, I can pay“).

Having not released original music in six years, Kelela found herself in a world rocked not only by a global pandemic, but also by wide-scale protests against racist police violence. The latter led her to conceptualize Raven as an album for Black femmes, having long felt alienated in the world dance music scene despite the genre’s Black and queer origins. “Raven is my first breath taken in the dark,” she elaborates for the album’s press release, “an affirmation of Black femme perspective in the midst of systemic erasure and the sound of our vulnerability turned to power.”

On the organ-led “Holier,” Kelela, stresses the need for boundaries when addressing an unfaithful partner: “I don’t care what you’re talkin’ about / All the shit that you say / You won’t learn anyway.” Her vulnerability imbues the somber track with emotional complexity that acknowledges not just her anger, but her heartbreak as well (“Thought I was good, but I’m not“). Meanwhile, the record’s amorphous title track shifts from seesawing synth chords to low bass wobbles to warped downtempo, and is finally capped off by a post-dubstep coda. Kelela repurposes the usually ominous symbolic power of a raven, singing, “Through all the labor / A raven is reborn.” She even manages to sneak in a reference to Edgar Allan Poe.

If one were committed to finding something to criticize, this record’s 62-minute runtime is perhaps less than ideal. Despite Kelela’s best efforts at taking her sound into new and interesting places, she doesn’t entirely avoid the feeling of déjà entendu, especially during the latter half, where tracks like “Bruises” offer solid danceability and a characteristically gorgeous vocal performance, but also begin to feel like not much than more of the same. Still, with Raven, Kelela pulls off her most luscious, immersive, and sensual album to date. Hearing a queer Black woman assert her voice by putting this bold a stamp on the many disparate subgenres that make up the terrain of electronic music is a joy in and of itself, but seeing that boldness pay off is even more gratifying.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.