“I’ve seen the future/ And it’s already over.”
Kelela sings from beyond the void of what has already happened, which is everything. Dance music has digested R&B, which has digested dance music, which has digested itself. Kelela has seen the recursive figure-eights her emotions mimic when locked in play with another ego, sometimes forming a shape familiar to her and to the society to which she belongs as love, but more often in a shape less easily identifiable, something more insidious.
“It’s a twisted cycle/ That you’ve infused with love.”
As much as it has been about sex, R&B has also been about the convolutions of the lovers’ shadowy bond, the one that converts instability to passion in order to sustain something that is, by its very nature, unsustainable. The referents on CUT 4 ME are as well-studied as they are obvious. The ghostly triadic harmonies of “Creep” and “Are U That Somebody” haunt Kelela’s culturally hashtagged tone poems, where names and bodies dissolve into a soup of liquid trap that only moves at night, knowing no faces, only hurt, deceit, and violence in the hope of kindling a real feeling. The protagonist of CUT 4 ME is in desperate need of “someone who gives a fuck.”
“Late at night you’ll feel me creeping/ One touch takes you out/ You’re sleeping/ I cut you where I want/ Stop before I’m done/ You’re begging me/ I won’t do it again.”
I’m not going to try and describe the sonic experience of this mixtape, except to remark that it has been engineered, coldly, machine-like, by the best of the best. The contrast of a singer whose vocals elicit descriptors like “organic” and “intimate” against an atmosphere so clad with the alien facades of the digital external is chilling, is painful, is confusing, especially when the lyrics trade so bluntly, so unadorned in the cold mirror-hall of the psychological real.
“You forget my name/ But you say it every night.”
There’s not a lot of music that makes me feel anything anymore. The pathways of all the typical pleasure patterns have been worn out from years of overuse; the physical release that I used to feel as a teenager when I’d listen to Bright Eyes has been made inaccessible to me through the cultural demystification of my own angst, the offloading of my generational emotive capacity onto an external network. Kelela does something very keen here in that she hijacks the pathways of the sonic neurons we have left, the cathartic embers still burning at the faraway ends of “Waterfalls,” and reroutes them through a new series of rhythmic phrases so as to expose the chilling real that remains when the padding of generic alignment falls away. The problem of honesty is no longer about whether or not someone is telling the truth; it’s about whether the truth is something even in their grasp.