getting tender with kelela

November 27, 2017

words by: Fajar Zakhri

"Part of being a black woman is that your humanity is stripped from you on a daily basis. Despite that, there is a way that black women in the world have expressed tenderness and have helped people around the world access that for themselves—I'm speaking to the tradition of R&B, jazz and black female vocalists in America since forever. It's wearing your heart on your sleeve, despite the fact that the world treats you like shit. It's the tradition of disarming, of making people feel vulnerability over everything. Take Me Apart is an ode to all those things."

So said rising phenomenon Kelela in her sharp, powerful essay published recently in light of the release of her long-awaited, highly-anticipated debut album. After two critically-acclaimed outputs (2013's Cut 4 Me and 2015's Hallucinogen), extensive touring and a rising profile in both music and fashion, Take Me Apart signals the first fully-realized vision of the second-generation Ethiopian-American. The 14-tracks set---a masterful, invigorating mélange of pop, R&B and electronica---is said to express "an honest vision of how we navigate dissolving ties with each other and yet remain sanguine for the next chance at love." However, she also stresses that despite the album's personal nature, "the politics of my identity informs how it sounds and how I choose to articulate my vulnerability and strength as a black woman who grew up in the ‘burbs listening to R&B, jazz and Björk."


The Icelandic icon has also served as something of a fairy godmother to Kelela, with constant praises in interviews and even mixing Kelela's songs into her DJ sets, most notably during a RuPaul Drag Race's viewing party earlier this year. Her frequent collaborator, Andrew Thomas Huang, also directed the vibrant, clubby visual for Take Me Apart's lead single, "LMK."

Kelela's own set of frequent collaborators, Jam City, Bok Bok and Arca (who coincidentally also co-produced Björk's 2015 opus, Vulnicura), also remained intact and imprinted their hard-hitting beats and blips throughout the album, in addition to new, high-profile collaborators such as Ariel Rechtshaid and Al Shux, both of whom co-produced the album's title track, which marries Kelela's slinky, emotive voice with airy, skittering beats and explosive drum-and-bass. Romy Madley Croft from the xx also co-wrote "Jupiter", the first song written for the album. ("Initially, the vocal was gibberish, and it stayed gibberish through the making of all of the other songs that were written for the album. I was going to keep it that way to have a Cocteau Twins moment," she said in a recent Pitchfork interview).

Despite the album's sturdy, jagged soundscape courtesy of its wide array of co-writers and producers, it is eventually Kelela's voice---an unassuming yet kinetic instrument---and her honest, no-holds-barred songwriting charting the ups and downs of love lost and love found that serves as the album's red thread and puts it a cut above the rest. It is, after all, her tenderness that shines through. "It’s not fashionable to be tender. That’s why it makes me cry. So I want to be really loud about it to all of the women who have been so tender in a world that just is not tender with them," she mused.

In a world that's increasingly occupied with toughness, perhaps we could all take cues from Kelela and her vision of tenderness.

Take Me Apart was released on October 6 and is available on all digital platforms.

For more Kelela, check out her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.