The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Album Review: Kelela’s “Raven” reaches new depths

“It’s 2 AM, yeah we made it, everybody faded” Kelela sings on “Contact,” the propulsive club track from her new release “Raven.” The track met my ears in the bleak Iowa City midwinter, seasonal depression in full swing. Not to mention that in IC at 2 AM, the club is now closed. The lights are turned up and they’ve been trying to kick you out for 15 minutes at this point. “Contact” thus becomes a utopian dream of an all-night dance party in a different city, or maybe even universe. I might only be taking a drive on Hwy 6 to the thrift store, but in my mind, I’m “taking a ride, 405 through the west side.”

Image: Album of the Year, “Enough for Love”

On “Raven”, the experimental artist feels more subdued yet more visionary than ever before. Previous releases saw Kelela carving out her own lane of lusty and introspective R&B. Some songs embody pulling up to the party with your girls, getting lit and looking hot, kind of like yassified Sims. Others felt like more standard club hits or ballads, until the breakdown hits and you realized Kelela is simply doing it better than the rest.

Whether you’re a new listener or already a fan of her debut “Take Me Apart”, “Raven” could take a couple of listens to dive into fully. It’s often meditative, tracks floating around in the ether and then returning back to the ground again. The lead single “Washed Away” was a reset button for the artist, a noticeable “change of pace.” The final track “Far Away” is a refrain to the intro. It is an alternate approach to the same sparse, contemplative lyrics and airy vocal riffs.

Though singles like “Happy Ending” and “Enough for Love” have a similar feeling to past Kelela tracks, the difference lies in the lush new sounds. The record sounds aquatic, like you’re hearing club beats through aquarium glass (especially the middle section from “Fooley” to the title track). Kelela’s voice guides us, the hypnotic siren’s call. At the same time, the electronic production recalls glitchy y2k and cyber aesthetics. With frequent collaborators LSDXOXO and Kaytranada, “Raven” also brings the sound of Black queer raves to the mix.

These varied parts may sound a bit frenetic on paper, but together, they coalesce into a sleek, enthralling record. It’s all very cinematic, which is a bit cliche to say about music at this point. But Kelela invites the comparison with her gorgeous, widescreen single covers (see above image). Speaking of imagery, I can’t divorce the album art image from my experience of this album. The evocative cover reminds me of a hyperrealist climate change sculpture by artist Ruben Orozco Loza.

Image: Business Insider Nederland. Bihar by Ruben Orozco Loza

Of course, Kelela’s cover has nothing to do with environmentalism, yet it evokes a similar uncanny feeling. Kelela’s face rendered matte black, ominously emerging from the water (Mother lake, anyone?). Like the album cover, the music is glossy, evocative, and hints at great depths of feeling and longing. As an astute Twitter user put it, with Raven, Kelela may have ended Edgar Allan Poe.