Kelela has arrived. She’s come a long way as an artist since her appearance on Teengirl Fantasy’s 2012 jam “EFX,” and on her new EP Hallucinogen, her first on Warp, she steps out into the world fully formed for the first time. Hallucinogen smolders from the start, dripping with sex at every turn. There’s a loose narrative of an intense sexual relationship played out across the EP’s six songs, but its chronology is unclear, and ultimately, irrelevant.
Hallucinogen has been a long time coming; originally scheduled for a May 5 release, it was delayed because Kelela felt it wasn’t ready. It’s a testament to the songs’ importance to her musical identity, that until now she has been so closely tied to the producers she’s worked with. Her work on the Teengirl Fantasy track led to a meeting with Fade To Mind’s Prince William, and ultimately, her breakout mixtape, Cut 4 Me. The tape was essentially a showcase for Fade To Mind and its sister label Night Slugs’ producers — Kingdom, Bok Bok, Nguzunguzu, to name a few — it introduced Kelela to the world, for sure, but at times it felt more like an audition. She proved she could work with established producers, fusing their sounds with her style, making music that felt collaborative. As a Fade To Mind/Night Slugs muse, she elevated both the labels’ profile and her own.
But this new record is distinctly Kelela. She works with different producers (Kingdom again, on the dance floor-ready “Rewind,” but also the ascendant Venezuelan producer Arca), but it’s coherent from track 1 through track 6, the pace an rhythm fluctuates, but the mood is constant. It’s dark, sultry, and brooding; the beats feel like her pulse, rising and dropping through the different phases of sexual response. At times, she’s fully in control, like on “Gomenasai,” when she sings “Soak it up about to leave you dry/ What’s my name better say it twice/ You’re my (bitch) tonight/ But tomorrow you won’t admit it.” But in love and lust, control can be fleeting, and on “All The Way Down,” she let’s go: “Is my head in the way?/ ‘Cause my heart can’t explain/ Where we going now?/ Build it up, we tear down/ Cared before but baby/ Now I don’t give a fuck.”
It’s easy to place Kelela amongst other strong women of color working in the same space — FKA Twigs is the easiest, and laziest, comparison. But while Twigs channels alien robotics and the astral plane, Kelela makes music that feels human, a cybernetic soul. It’s most evident on “A Message,” the first track she revealed from the EP. The longing is apparent from the first sounds, reinforced by the elongated notes of the hook, in which she moans “If I was your ex…girlfriend/ Call you on the telephone/ Ask you when you’re coming home.” It feels impossible to not be drawn in by her seduction, the music inspires involuntary gyration. Whether it’s in the bedroom or on the dance floor, it’s music to grind to. More please.