Contextualising the term ‘alternative R&B’ can prove to be quite the ordeal, if not because of its very loosely-defined nature, then because of the backlash that attempting to parse this specific genre label is likely to cause. Indeed, like most styles prefixed with the ‘alternative’ tag, the exact tenets of alternative R&B are somewhat poorly outlined and cover quite a wide range of stylistic sensibilities, with many positing the subgenre to appropriate ideas from electronic music, experimental music, hip hop and rock into R&B, whilst others see it as a branch of R&B that simply offers an alternative to mainstream contemporary R&B. I honestly have little to offer to help ease the complications of completely contextualising the term, but what I can say is that the genre’s opaque boundaries have accommodated for an extensive reach of experimental and avant-garde tendencies, thus harbouring perhaps some of the most forward-thinking music to have come out in the last few years, despite still operating within a mindset that doesn’t stray too far from that of mainstream music. Due to her close connection to the label as it was beginning to work its way into the lexicon of the broader music journalistic community, Kelela Mizanekristos, who records solely under the name Kelela, has come to embody much of that which is associated with alternative R&B, in particular its definitively experimental edge, and the singer’s debut full-length project, Take Me Apart, represents what many may view as how ahead of the curve alternative R&B continues to be in 2017.
Since her debut mixtape from 2013, Cut 4 Me, Kelela’s clear influences from various forms of electronic dance music, such as techno and UK bass, helped fortify the relationship between alternative R&B and EDM, whilst her work with a handful of cutting edge producers says a lot about the innovative reach of the genre, with Venezuelan DJ Arca and his twisted production style having found its way onto both the artist’s debut EP, Hallucinogen, and Take Me Apart. In many ways, therefore, Take Me Apart certainly seems to fulfil its role as a debut album, in that Kelela strives to present the full expanse of her stylings across the record’s 54-minute runtime, whilst nevertheless coming through with a more refined sound overall, with the tracklisting being relatively tightly-knit in terms of the underlying tone of each song. In this sense, Take Me Apart can certainly be respected in terms of the extent to which Kelela outlines her sound and identity as an artist, but it also exposes the issues with this style that became apparent on the singer’s previous material without necessarily fully materialising. Namely, with Kelela’s vocal delivery being rather poised and with her vocal tone being soft and nimble, the abrasive edge to much of the production across Take Me Apart, rather than acting as a compelling counterbalance to the lighter shades of her voice, completely clashes with the singer’s delivery, to the point of overshadowing her bursts of vocal flair. Ultimately, therefore, although Take Me Apart quite clearly defines the kind of artist Kelela wants to be, this source of identification is still very much in a stage of immaturity. With the singer herself being so ill-matched with the production across Take Me Apart, it seems as if the two were considered and devised completely separately, with the end product being conceived simply by attempting to form-fit the two together in a way that only weakens them both. Although Kelela’s vocals and the record’s production both have their individual moments, only occasionally are these highlights a result of cooperation between the two, with Take Me Apart seemingly wanting to have its cake and eat it too.
With the salient flaw of Take Me Apart relating to the way in which the production interacts with Kelela’s vocals, it can be difficult to discuss the two separately, but even when looking at both of these elements individually, the album still leaves much to be desired in many regards, and this relates primarily to the singer herself. Strip away the heavy multi-tracking used on the artist’s voice across much of the album and the most obvious point of comparison to Kelela’s singing style would be the popular female R&B artists from the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the likes of Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child and, by far the most apparent inspiration, Janet Jackson all standing out as being natural precursors to the Kelela that can be heard on her debut. Although Kelela is far from a complete show-stopper when it comes to her singing, the musician’s smooth and sultry vocal tone seems to be far more tailored towards the brand of sensual torch songs that recur across Take Me Apart, with stand-out tracks, such as Waitin and LMK, demonstrating a supple elegance and an admirable range that works especially well when this wispiness is left in its natural state. Unfortunately, however, there are numerous points throughout Take Me Apart wherein Kelela’s vocals are laden with various effects, as well as auto-tune and occasional pitch-shifting, as is the case on the title track, Onanon and, to a lesser extent, Blue Light, in a way that only eclipses her abilities as a singer and appeals to completely the opposite style of vocal production that would best suit her. Of course, this is, again, difficult to distinguish from the broader drawbacks with the production choices across Take Me Apart, and there will be more on that later, but more significant to the issue at hand is that Kelela’s knack for control and litheness in her singing really struggles to shine through when bogged down with these effects. Although the album’s extensive use of multi-tracking may seem justified on paper, in that it could be seen to help enrich the dynamic value of the singer’s very soft cooing, in practice, it often hinders Kelela’s expressiveness in a similar fashion to the use of other effects, albeit to a significantly lesser degree. Add in instances of the singer falling off beat ever so slightly on S.O.S., or her rather one-dimensional style of writing vocal melodies that becomes increasingly stale over the record’s 54-minute duration, and it would be fair to say that, although Kelela demonstrates her strengths as a performer at certain points on Take Me Apart, these highs are seldom met with any consistency, rather numerous small issues end up piling on top of one another, making for an underwhelming performance from the artist overall.
The real heart of the matter when it comes to Take Me Apart, however, is, of course, the production, both in that this is what has commonly been cited for making this album a genre-pushing paragon, whilst, in my eyes, this is what truly holds the record back from doing Kelela justice as a singer and performer. Although the primary shortfalls of the production relate to the way in which it interacts — or not, as the case may be — with Kelela’s vocals, that’s not necessarily to say that, taken out of the context of the way in which it accompanies to the artist’s vocal style, much of the production across Take Me Apart is entirely revolutionary. Rather, for those familiar with Arca’s work with Björk and FKA twigs, the instrumentals from the producer and his peers on Take Me Apart are unlikely to be all that extraordinary, especially in that much of the production feels significantly more one-dimensional compared to previous projects that Arca and his colleagues have had a hand in. Although the penetrating, icy synths, warped bass tones and oppressive percussion may seem rather striking at first, over the course of the record’s 14 tracks, it becomes apparent that much of the production across Take Me Apart adheres to a relatively clear-cut formula that becomes exponentially less remarkable as the tracklisting rattles on. If anything, however, it’s the tracks which feature smoother and stabler beats, and which aren’t set on stunning the listeners with their angular and abrasive tones, that are far more suited to Kelela’s singing style, in that they actually provide the musician’s vocals with some restrained rhythmic and melodic cushioning, all while not overpowering her as if her vocals were an afterthought to the gnarled production style. In this sense, of all the producers to work on Take Me Apart, Jam City seems to be most aware of Kelela’s needs as a performer, in that his beats most consistently give the singer room to brandish her vocal chops, despite still coming through with some of the more memorable instrumental moments across the album. The nocturnal and near-ambient bed of synths on the opening track, Frontline, is built on incredibly subtly across the cut, and accompanied only by some minimal trap percussion, in a way that both complements Kelela’s vocals, with this song featuring one of her more varied performances, and focuses the listener’s attention on them. The following track, Waitin, is strong for similar reasons, with the accented melodies from the warm synths instantly injecting the song with a memorable tune, whilst also giving Kelela a lot of room to show off her sultry singing between these melodic descents. However, such songs are unfortunately more the exception than the rule on Take Me Apart, with all too many tracks burying Kelela under their heavy-handed production styles that seem to have been conceived with little thought given as to how they would accommodate for the artist’s strengths as a singer. Whether it be the burbling electronics and gurgling vocal effects that swallow the musician’s singing on the title track, the unorganised swarm of poorly-mixed multi-tracking and muffled synths that tangle together clumsily on Enough, or the numerous applications of unflattering vocal effects mentioned previously, the production across Take Me Apart more typically has a tendency to trample Kelela’s singing than to complement it particularly, with the end product being stiff and clunky in a way that works to the detriment of both the artist’s vocals and the production.
When it comes to pairing contrasting tones, there exists a fine line between creating a compelling sense of light and shade, in which the contradictory nature of each tone brings something out in the other that couldn’t quite be captured otherwise, and helplessly mashing together two opposing sounds that are made to completely clash with one another, and when it loses focus of bringing out the strengths of Kelela’s singing style, Take Me Apart leans towards the latter. The set-up attempted on this album is by no means bound to fail, as many of Kelela’s peers and influences have been successful in similar endeavours, with even Janet Jackson having pursued some slightly more experimental stylings in the past. Take Me Apart, however, seems to lose sight of supporting Kelela in favour of chasing experimental instrumentals that tend to almost entirely engulf the singer’s vocals, let alone bring out the best in them. The heights of the more restrained instrumentals quite clearly demonstrate Kelela’s potential as a sensual and self-possessed R&B singer when she is accompanied by production that is both nuanced enough to effectively frame her vocals and detailed enough to come through with some potent melodic tones of its own, but the rest of Take Me Apart fails to capitalise on this. The shortcomings of the record only reinforce that Kelela is at her strongest when the subtleties of her soft, slick singing are given enough room to breathe and stun the listener with their natural elegance. The fact that Take Me Apart, for the most part, struggles to capture this side of the singer shows just how far off the mark its production is when it comes to doing Kelela justice.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10