R&B is experiencing a renaissance. An electic genre by nature, R&B is prone to phases of rebirth and change, exemplified by the electronic influences that are starting to permeate a space that was once dominated by funk and soul.
The past few years have seen the emergence of a distinctive subculture within the R&B umbrella: the feminine mogul in the realm of electronic soul. This movement can trace its roots back to Bjork’s Post (1995) which undoubtedly accelerated the pace of innovation within the eclectic R&B genre.
Recently, this movement has manifested itself in the likes of Tinashe’s Aquarius (2014), FKA twigs’ LP1 (2014) and M3LLI55X (pronounced “Melissa”) (2015), and, most recently, Kelela’s Hallucinogen (2015), a bold and brilliant newcomer to the R&B stage.
Kelela Mizanekristos—who goes by Kelela—hails from the D.C. area. She eventually moved to L.A., joining Teengirl Fantasy, an electronic pop duo. During this period, Kelela experimented with electronic samples, layering them with her own voice. Her samples culminated in the mixtape Cut 4 Me (2013), which met critical acclaim upon release for her innovation of electronic R&B.
Hallucinogen builds off of Cut 4 Me’s progressive template, sounding more complete and expertly produced than the debut work. In small places where Cut 4 Me occasionally came off as an introverted vanity project due to its seemingly intentional obscurity, Hallucinogen accomplishes a universal emotional appeal, sharing Kelela’s emotional matrix in moments of intimacy and artistic bravado.
The EP opens with “A Message,” which was released in advance of Hallucinogen as a promotional single. “A Message” breathes with the listener; building and retreating synthesizers rumble in the background as Kelela softly croons: “I won’t shed a tear / ‘Cuz water works are easy.” The somber landscape is paralleled in the EP’s closing track, “The High,” which grapples viscerally with turmoil and heartache; “I wonder how it came to this / I play it over in my head,” she admits, breathing softly over the subtle synths. The futuristic nature of these tracks distinguishes it from its peers in the R&B genres, employing vocal manipulations and distortions that highlight Kelela’s vocal and emotional range.
“Gomenasai” (casual Japanese for “I’m sorry”) is where the EP really shines, incorporating all of Kelela’s originality in a single composition. The track opens with a stripped-down verse where Kelela talks directly to the listener. As the track proceeds, Kelela arms herself with her characteristic trap bass drops. The track rises, stirs, falls and revolves, almost like a ship lost at sea. “Gomenasai”’s lack of linear progression is almost disconcerting at first; however, Kelela’s honey-smooth voice guides the listener through the tempestuous landscape. Her voice oscillates between the foreground and background; the production on this track brings the listener into its imagined space, a space where there’s nowhere to hide. The music envelops the listener, not allowing release until the hushed outro.
Hallucinogen reaches its highest tempos in “All the Way Down,” which plays with distorted percussion and low frequency bass rhythms to yield a reverberating club jam. “All the Way Down” is the most familiar track for Kelela fans, as it draws strongly from Cut 4 Me’s “Send Me Out” and “Bank Head” in its sinuous beat pace. In Kelela’s own words, “The only way to sum it up / is falling roller-coaster rush.”
Kelela deals with pain by making it unmistakably sensuous—on Hallucinogen, practicality is left at the door and replaced with something better, something infinitely more primal. In pushing the boundaries of modern sound with brash synths and mind-bending vocal distortions, Kelela is showing us how to withdraw into the self as a means of processing the external. While her music is, at its core, fundamentally futuristic, it retains the emotional context of its roots in R&B.
There’s something liberating and simultaneously constricting about being at the forefront of a musical movement, and that comes across in the erratic but undeniably genius beats of Hallucinogen. By the end of the album, the listener is left wondering what comes next. Only one thing can be sure: Kelela will deliver. If her progression from Cut 4 Me to Hallucinogen tells us anything, it’s that while she may not have everything planned, she’s always one step ahead of the game. What comes next is simply unimaginable to us; but it will certainly be ear candy, and it will certainly be inno-
vative. How could she have it any other way?