In an age of constant engagement, silence and introspection can seem like the most daunting thing. For Kelela it was a necessary step, and a rewarding one. Her highly acclaimed 2017 debut album Take Me Apart helped to build a music world celebrating Black and queer club culture, and the following hiatus was a palpable one. Six years later, the wait for Kelela’s much anticipated return is over, with her second album Raven documenting not only her withdrawal but also her magnificent rebirth.
Ever since dropping Cut 4 Me a decade ago, Kelela has proven herself an expert at sourcing just the right collaborators to realise her visions. With close friend and co-executive producer Asmara, she directs an acclaimed entourage of the current club scene: GHE20G0TH1K alum LSDXOXO provides NY ballroom-indebted beats while Canadian star DJ Bambii flourishes across the album, and that’s not to mention an absolutely killer verse from New Jersey rapper Rahrah Gabor on ‘Closure’. It’s a furthering of her mission to centre Black and queer figures in artistic narratives; as she says herself, “The goal is to look around and see more of us, not less.” Such sentiment is in conversation with contemporaries like Solange, who reflects Kelela’s lyrics describing complex feelings with an accessible approach, impossible to resist.
Opening this era with the 'Washed Away' music video set in the stunning landscapes of her ancestral Ethiopia, it's clear Kelela has been on a journey. On Raven, she severs from relationships: friends, lovers, even herself, travelling as far as possible to come back even stronger. These themes stem from her feelings of “isolation and alienation as a Black femme in dance music”, resulting in renewing tracks where her vocals soar above nocturnal, pummelling techno beats and sunken, meditative ambient soundscapes.
Kelela doesn’t just examine her identity as a Black femme, but Western society’s dichotomy between light and dark altogether. Raven doesn’t render its clarity with the light of day, or the flare of phoenix feathers, but with the cool embrace of the abyss. The cover shows an obsidian statue in Kelela’s likeness, neck deep in inky waters yet with no sign of struggle: she voluntarily floats to the whims of the gyres, then descends deep into the ocean’s shadowy hadal heart. She sings on the title track, “The hype will waver, I’m not nobody’s pawn,” taking away the album’s club fervour just as she disappeared from view.
These oceans of emotional expressions are just as fused with bangers as the “ambient heart-checks”. Two worlds collide in the duo of ‘Raven’ and ‘Bruises’ where Kelela defiantly stakes her claim on the floor with emotional introspection, as enveloping baroque shimmers are broken apart by a thumping raving storm. Like every track on the album, they flow into each other through a flawlessly sequences DJ mix, representing the interconnectedness between electronic genres that reaches back to dance music’s origins as a Black and queer art form.
The mix starts with the unparalleled ‘Washed Away’, banishing the fog of departure with trancelike intimacy and Kelela’s aqueous melisma. It’s a bold opener, and a hint towards deeper cuts like her 2019 Aquaphoria mixtape. Then the anthems roll in: ‘Happy Ending’ and ‘On The Run’ depict the “push and pull dynamics of love” with heavenly harmonies and turbulent rhythms, bracketing the syrupy funk bassline and smooth, subtle techno drums of ‘Let It Go’ as Kelela is caught between separation and reconciliation. The propulsive drum breaks of ‘Missed Call’ soundtrack the suspense lingering around the phone, waiting for a call or gathering the courage to make one.
Diving into a more minimal and mature sound, the album’s second half bellows with mysterious power. Introspective meditations burn, soar, and envelop, freezing an intimate moment in time on ‘Sorbet’ where wistful vocals caress the sonic field, before scattering with the heavy, plunging plucks of ‘Divorce’. ‘Enough For Love’ is a cry for communication, a courageous confrontation crashing in tidal waves before the final track dramatically pans out, leaving us with one of the most magnificent vocal runs we’ve heard this year.
Raven has only gotten stronger the longer it has accompanied us throughout 2023, displaying Kelela’s incomparable artistry in full force as she explores her own identity and ancestry as a Black femme, both in music and in life.