Album Review: Kelela – RAVEN

[Warp; 2023]

Between 4 and 6am, on the hour-long journey home from a night out lies the interzone between dance and rest. In my younger years, journeying back to my parents’ house in suburbia, I often found more solace in these long travels than the preceding time in clubs. The reason for that lies within the aura of the golden hour, where foxes roam among the first rays of the morning sun and birds sing in praise of the relinquished dark. Maybe you run into a hedgehog among the dew, or an early hour traveler that hunts for first croissants. It’s a peaceful experience, where the industrial makes ways for a welcome illusion of the pastoral – as if the world sheds off its drag and make–up, anticipating your coming sleep.

But there’s another reason I often preferred this time to that spent within a club. There’s often something  unpleasantly urgent about going out to dance, something dominant and unrelenting. For as inclusive as dance culture often brands itself, there’s also always something overbearingly masculine about it. Even with the majority of disco and RnB being helmed by female performers, the music and show all too often aspires to fit a (white) male perspective on enjoyment within dance, where gentleness is a fractured landscape. It’s all about bangers!

Not that this is unique – don’t get me started on the rock or techno landscapes and their history of sexism and phoney wokeness – but it’s strange just how little dance provided alternatives beyond constant aggressive euphoria throughout its history.

And in that, RAVEN spreads its wings. Kelela‘s second album is a transformative work of art that merges house and ambient, soul and dance, and resides within interzones like the titular animal, a mediator between the material world and the realm of the spirits. It’s a vast canvas of cultural expressions, emotional tones, erotic exploration and musical brilliance.

Split into two halves and bookended by two halves of one gentle ballad, RAVEN plays with shadows and (coloured) light. The record’s first half is marked by strong, at times radioactive glowing beats, such as on the 90s–house inspired “Happy Ending”, whose neon–drenched music video is a brilliant reflection of its colorful and beckoning energy. Lyrically, “Happy Ending” explores the dance of two estranged love interests, whose energies seem to both magnetically attract and oppose each other: “We’re too far away / I’m reading all the writing on the wall / And if you don’t run away / Could be a happy ending after all / It’s deeper than fantasy”. There’s something naughty and sexual, but also empowered and cavernous here that makes the song a perfect signifier for the album’s emotional compass.

As the song’s images slowly fade, “Let It Go” follows with a slightly jazzy coda, the two lovers now united and the protagonist inviting her opposite in. Like a dream, the scene shifts from dancefloor to bedroom, the movements of lips, hands and hips slowly merging into sex. This structure of dream logic extends throughout the album, with most songs fading into each other like watercolours. Bodies and places can transform from one moment to the next – small samples hidden in the mix give clues of the environment surrounding each scene – but emotionally, there is a coherent movement and growth. With its somewhat Sade–like tone, “Let It Go” immediately introduces a more confined and nocturnal setting, which then returns to the outside with “On the Run”.

Introduced with a lush and suggestive video that provides a variety of the Thelma and Louise–mythos, the song’s imagery of cars and the open road returns to a divergence of the paths of the two lovers that inhabit most of the first half. As in the follow up – the more contemporary drum’n’bass laden “Missed Call” – Kelela observes how abstract love can be when communication, both physical and verbal, is confined to enclosed spaces, such as bedrooms, cars and apps. The text and words itself seem not enough.

Finally, the tension ends in the collision of “Closure”. RAVEN‘s most traditional song and duet with rapper Rahrah Gabor, it’s the album’s “Holy Terrain” moment. A pretty RnB song, it can be seen as a palette cleanser, before the magnificent “Contact”. Reminiscent in tone of Underworld’s “Banstyle / Sappy’s Curry”, the leisure ambient house track is a meditation on “pre–gaming”, meeting up and getting ready together before going into the club. The song’s music video once more concerns itself with contemporary interzones. Mixing clips of raw digital footage, it invokes a strange realm somewhere between dream and instagram video feeds, Kelela and her opposite overshadowing the anonymous hotel room–like environment with their charisma and sensuality. On a record packed with memorable moments and standout tracks, “Contact” still shines with psychedelic haze of half–glimpsed nocturnal moments in a modern cityscape. Eventually, its individual elements drift away, leaving only the beat, which speeds up and then explodes in an echo.

This is where the record all of a sudden breaks apart and “Fooley” oozes in like a dark, formless goo. With its cyberpunk electronica, it is like quite nothing preceding it. Lyrically returning to the album’s two bookends – “Washed Away” and “Far Away” – it is still distinct from them. All three tracks work as vessels, transporting the listener to a new realm: “Washed Away” submerges the listener in RAVEN‘s landscape, while “Far Away” bids them farewell, slowly releasing the audience back into the outside world. “Fooley” then ends the narrative of the first half, and introduces the second side of the project, drained of all colours and removing the social experience of public spaces for something more submerged.

“Holier” then opens, like a sentient mixture of David Bowie’s “Subterraneans” and Akira Yamaoka’s “Prisonic Fairytale”. The protagonist announces that the magnetism to her opposite has worn down, and she’s now floating, being carried away from them. It’s a stark contrast and establishes the album’s second half.

Filled with poetic and spiritual ambient balladry, these songs both oppose and complement their predecessors. Where those songs felt like a neon–drenched urban cityscape, the latter ones feel like strangely visceral, like virtual simulations of parks and walkways. In a way, they’re the introspective trek home after the night out. This is especially palpable on title track “Raven”, where Kelela’s lyricism is elusive and abstract: “The long way / A raven reborn / Pour it up / The weaving through scorn / It’s all over / Me”. The song slowly builds itself up, introducing the distant chime of a piano before finally exploding into thudding cyberpunk synthesizers and dark beats. A strange and enveloping song, “Raven” demands attention, never quite residing in one place.

Like a glass, it finally breaks apart into the claustrophobic muffled beats of “Bruises”. Dominated by queer double entendre, the song is the sole dance track on the second half, but the movements here are an uneasy and emotionally loaded dance, rich with hidden slashes and drenched in luminescent blood, that finally slows down and melts into “Sorbet”.

These last three tracks of RAVEN are something all of their own. “Sorbet” breaks down sex into symbols like pearls on a string, slowly unraveling like Tanita Tikaram’s “Twist in My Sobriety”. At times, its quiet poetry recalls the blind experience of measuring somebody else’s body in the dark: “It’s ways / Rushing it / The taste on my mouth / Can we go again?” – “Waves when we touch / Ripple and their / Sound, all out / Sweeter than / I wanna lay out / Sun on my face”. Its slow hypnosis is carried by its minimalist structure, which acknowledges absence. When it finally ends in a quiet drone, it seems all too natural, only for the immediate and choking sadness of “Divorce” to settle in with lamenting strings and warm bass.

A crushing lament, the song embodies the emotional crush of a separation, as Kelela contrasts the space between deep water and mountains: “Under the surface, I’m lying / Fighting the time, now I’m drowning / Pushing around, couple mountain /  I wanna go, you around it”. It returns to the texture of Bowie’s Low glimpsed earlier on “Holier”, tying a thematic connection, ending with the sounds of a submarine slowly disappearing in darkness.

Yet this is not the end: “Enough for Love” is RAVEN‘s emotional climax, a freeing RnB hymn that finally releases all the tension. As its lead melody invades the album like rays of sunshine, all processed 80s drums and laser lights, Kelela’s words are finally able to speak out on a seemingly eternal struggle: “Are you tough enough for love? / Give it up / Don’t forget about us / Gotta toughen up for love / I need a tougher love / You’re enough for love”. It’s an incredibly liberating moment, ending in the sound of waves breaking and Kelela breathing in air.

As “Far Away” mirrors the album’s opening and bids the listener farewell, it becomes clear that RAVEN‘s artwork – that of Kelela’s body fully submerged in water with only the face visible – perfectly encapsulates the record’s inner struggle of emotional turmoil, of love that never quiet expresses itself adequately, of a life between all things.

And that makes a lot of sense: Kelela is a Gemini with a Pisces moon. If one believes in such things, then this showcases a person of great, deep emotional depth who nonetheless is torn between the intuition of two reflective inner emotional worlds. In such a pairing, there is the urge to be fully carried away, at times in total loss of self, while also questioning every choice, settling for the worst one in order to allow pain to make the eventual choice of abandonment easier. In that, expression for the inexpressible is finally possible: a poetry of illusion, choice and sadness.

They’re deep and rich and emotional people, Geminis with Pisces moon, among them Kristin Hayter of Lingua Ignota and Kanye West aka Ye. They need more than ‘just’ ‘life’. Thus RAVEN allows Kelela to not only do what she set out to; make a record as a Black queer femme that defies genre and gender expectations. In her alchemical process of musicianship, she’s created an aura so powerful that it created a singular artistic work that stretches past its self to birth an emotional realm all of itself. It’s there with David Bowie’s Low and Sade’s Diamond Life as expression of queer dualism, with Underworld’s Second Toughest In The Infants and 2814’s Birth Of A New Day as utopian futurism that builds dreams.

But at the heart, it remains itself, making comparison impossible and presenting itself proudly to the world: Black, queer, feminine music, filled with desire, pain, lust and sadness. A comet, a diamond, a perfume, a love letter, an orchid, an apple, and none of these things. When I was out, in clubs, I couldn’t wait to go home, lie down and listen to it, again, awaiting the rays of the coming sun.