Kelela Take Me Apart

[Warp; 2017]

Styles: “sadly, future R&B is no longer what it was”
Others: FKA twigs, Solange, Little Dragon

If we say that the personal is inherently political, can that be enough? Take Me Apart stakes itself in totality on an answer in the affirmative.

On the one hand, the album lies very much in the lineage of (seemingly) apolitical romance that’s been the majority positionality of music in the genres that make up the past to its “future R&B” (R&B itself, jazz, neo soul). And indeed, which has been the raison d’être of “pop” music tout court, as the romantic and the sexual took the place of religion as a source of transcendental meaning and of the identity of the self in secular society.

On the other, Kelela in interviews clearly positions the work in the lineage of recent artists explicitly speaking from and to blackness — Solange, Beyoncé, and Kendrick Lamar (and perhaps in a more similarly sideways fashion, Frank Ocean). And she explores the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal world who’s making music in a patriarchal industry. These two facets of identity can’t be unknitted, either in her reflections (an apt word for this album, as we’ll see) or in the music itself.

Conceptually, then, Take Me Apart is a statement made very much in the face of misogynoir, the place where racism meets sexism. Kelela has self-questioned the lack of any overt reference to blackness on the album, but argues that portraying tenderness and vulnerability in and of itself should be read as an act of feminist blackness and of defiance. Having said that, her claims to portraying the very existence of female sexual desire, and particularly a masochistic female role equivalent to a power bottom, as revolutionary or rebellious in and of themselves don’t quite ring true in the raunch culture era.

To problematize this positioning is not to say that the problems she identifies don’t exist — they very much do. But the freight of significance that the album carries is more fascinating in the web of discursive meaning Kelela has woven around it than in the album itself. Which is perhaps representative of the limitations of music’s possibilities to speak truth to power in an age of self-empowerment philosophy. An age where to break silence is a political act that happens so repetitively that it constitutes rather than deconstructs the machine. An age where it’s the fate of political works of art to become unintentional simulacra, making their claims from foundations too slick to provide the necessary purchase in a world where resources both literal and discursive are proceeding to exhaustion.

And the exteriors here are too smooth. There are a few interesting janks beneath the surface, the kind we associate with Kelela’s previous work and with the Night Slugs/Fade to Mind artists featured here, who at their best serve up a divine mélange of dissonance and earworm. Of such were Kelela’s finest moments until now, and a handful of tracks here (“Frontline,” “Better,” “Onandon”) begin to capture the same vibe. But for the most part, Take Me Apart is sonically more akin to a soundtrack, one for neon-tinged late-night driving. Or for bedrooms with ceiling mirrors — those slippery reflections…

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