Kelela Pushes R&B in New Direction

R&B artist Kelela (Courtesy photo)
R&B artist Kelela (Courtesy photo)

Singer and songwriter Kelela is one of R&B’s new rising stars. Two years after releasing her critically acclaimed EP “Cut 4 Me,” she’s back with “Hallucinogen.”

In half a dozen tracks, she lets her personal tastes and that of her collaborators distance herself from the mainstream contemporary R&B pack all the while rooting herself in the tradition. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, she said that she focuses more on “resonance than on sound [unlike others]” to balance out her own individuality with that of the feature artists. Her rhythms, melodies, and lyrics cause us to hallucinate, as great R&B has always done.

Most songs on “Hallucinogen” are atmospheric and have well-researched and sophisticated grooves. None of them sound spontaneous in the least

bit. Though not great for dancing by contemporary standards, this musical compilation is the ideal background music for socializing. “The only way to sum it up,” as Kelela sings in “All The Way Down” counts as a great contribution to black culture. This love song shows how the emotion can be an irrational and passive plunge. It has the ability to thrill a listener because it’s ambient and chic all the while being very cynical and sober. On the other hand, “Rewind” gives us an honest look into the life of a girl in the crowd. In general, all of Kelela’s songs offer a glimpse into how members of the African-American community feel at this moment in history.

Hallucinogen belongs to a group of what we can call “the new mature black music” that includes J. Cole’s newest album “2014 Forest Hills Drive” and Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly.” It’s the sound of a very ambitious generation raised on pop culture that has produced musicians and activists

that value individualism and other progressive ideals. These musicians root themselves in melodies and rhythms that the black community loves all the while calling it to advance in the same fashion as their music. “Hallucinogen” belongs to the R&B wing of this new wave along with sounds created by Frank Ocean. Unlike in hip-hop, they are not very political lyrically but they offer a sense of beauty through melody and Kelela’s resonance that does it a lot of good.

Kelela was part of of a collective album, “Saint Heron,” released by Solange Knowles’s Saint Records that wanted to present the new wave of independent R&B. The album, though it didn’t have a significant impact on the genre, remains fragmented. Kelela’s project, making traditional R&B with new grooves, is much more ambitious than most the projects of her fellow musicians on “Saint Heron,” including Jhene Aiko, at a time when the norm is to have a hit on Top 40 radio.

Alas, Kelela has a long way to go before she produces songs of the same grandeur as Whitney Houston’s. Falsely represented as happy-go-lucky people, the black community has always been very, very, serious about music and civilization in general. Whitney’s voice and mastery of melody is the product of years of hard work.

R&B is very special to the black community. Not only are its sounds and lyrics loved, but its visuals are also often what African Americans associate with coolness in a land of sin and of strife. Today’s sound is dominated by megastars like Beyonce, Chris Brown and Charlie Wilson. With hard work, Kelela will become an important asset to the genre. Wanting to balance out one’s individualities with that of one’s collaborators in order to make musical masterpieces sounds closer to jazz than it does to R&B. Shame on this critic, however, for thinking so lowly of R&B and Kelela’s project is exactly what black followers of the genre deserve.