In a recent Vulture interview, Kelela compares the latest entry in her catalog to slipping down a dark water slide: all twists, turns, and lurches. And the trip is darkest just before the moment you’re spit out into the unknown. Brimming with synth undercurrents, transfluid melodies, and delightfully jarring production shifts, Raven is a transfixing ode to human connection, interpersonal communication, and Black femininity.
This sophomore effort finds the L.A.-based, Ethiopian American singer is at a different place mentally than she was when crafting 2017 debut LP Tear Me Apart. Musically it’s the same atmospheric electronica grinding against progressive R&B – in other words dance music that’s as appropriate for the bedroom, alone or with company, as it is over speakers in the club. From the crashing waves of synth at the beginning of opener “Washed Away” to the breathtaking drop between “Raven” and “Bruises,” it’s clear Kelela is at the top of her game when it comes to production choices.
Conceptually, the growth is explosive. From the subject matter, another thing that’s obvious is that the 39-year-old Washington, D.C. native is wrestling with new personal and philosophical challenges. Returning from a five-year hiatus, which can feel like an eternity in a churning industry, Kelela is Raven: an otherworldly agent representing rebirth, prophecy, and insight. As she told Vulture, she’s here to share the spoils: “The feeling that came over me on certain songs was just wanting to speak on some town-crier shit, wanting to express myself, speaking to my experience outside of romance.”
Raven feels like a quest for understanding in and outside of one’s self. Some of it has to do with romance, but it’s also an examination of the stoicism of men, white people, the powerful, the culpability of non-Black people of color. On the organ-laced “Holier,” Kelela stands at a pulpit and delivers a sermon on connection and relationships and how we need both to sustain ourselves. “And though we struggle apart, thought I was good, but I’m not.”
It’s difficult to distinguish between those themes and the romantic ones Kelela employs, because she examines them with intimacy as her romantic ponderings. At surface level, “Happy Ending” and “Contact” are bumping club anthems. Listen closer and realize they’re about the whiplash of encountering someone there you didn’t expect, the urgency in trying to catch another glimpse, and making the choice to re-engage in something you might not when you’re sober.
There are standouts: among them the Kaytranada-produced “On the Run”, samba-infused “Missed Call”, and the aforementioned club banger “Contact.” And each track is more than capable of standing on its own. But, truly, Raven is meant to be digested all in one go. Listen to a story only Kelela can tell as each track melts into the next in a haze of synth.
At its root, Raven is a response to anyone who made the mistake of thinking that Kelela’s hiatus was an ill-omen with regard to her career. “They tried to break her/ There’s nothing here to mourn,” she sings, defiant, on the title track. “The hype will waver/I’m not nobody’s pawn.” Looking for a symbol of rebirth, she came across the raven. Some consider it forbidding – a symbol of loss – but it’s also the talking bird and a connection between spirit realms. Few storytellers can land that kind of nuance, and Kelela is one of them.
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