Cut 4 Me, Kelela’s mixtape-cum-debut album was one of the most critically lauded albums by any new artist in 2013. The Maryland-raised R&B singer took relatively traditional genre-based song structures and sung them over beats and soundscapes that were produced by several underground DJs. The results were stunning mid-tempo and slow jam collaborations. They were disorienting, atmospheric and seductive, sometimes sinister.
Kelela’s new six-track EP Hallucinogen takes that template but tightens it a little. The songs sound bolder and more defined, and the production more supportive of Kelela’s star quality.
‘A Message’, already out for some months as the EP’s lead single, places Kelela centre stage of an Arca production that is equal parts Prince, TLC and Massive Attack – a menacing female sexuality that contorts and manoeuvres through murky relationship dead-ends. It is Hallucinogen‘s best song and Kelela’s most assertive performance to date.
Where ‘A Message’ opens the EP with an inky fluidity, ‘The High’ ends it with a similarly dark puff of smoke. Although implied to be non-narcotic, ‘The High’ that Kelela refers to occupies a similar sonic space at least to The Weeknd and the creation of space and an overtly electronic throb only heighten the tension.
At the other of the mood scale, ‘Rewind’ provides ‘Hallucinogen’ with its one radiant up-tempo track. Overtly pop, if there were any justice Kelela should hit big with its skipping crunk, freestyle beats, and her carefree and iridescent vocals. It sounds perfect for radio play, with one foot in a revivalist freestyle past and the other placed firmly in R&B’s future.
‘Gomenasai’ not only opens with a riff that is remarkably similar to Aaliyah’s early hit ‘Back and Forth’ but Kelela channels one of the most revered alt-R&B female star of all time with vocals and a melody that will make many heady with nostalgia.
‘All the Way Down’ does not veer wildly from the slow groove of millennial bump and grind music, and that’s what a lot of this EP is about. It’s only on the near avant-garde title track, which serves more as an interlude with its smashing glass effects and incoherent lyrics and vocals, that Kelela really pushes to be experimental again sonically.
As a stop-gap, six-track album Hallucinogen may be less attention-seeking than Cut 4 Me but manages to hit its target frequently and with more substance than before. Kelela has raised the stakes and upped her game. She no longer shares equal billing with her collaborators and is instead the leading light in her own show.