Kelela Album Review: Raven
Dance Music is B(l)ack.
The dance album is back. With Drake and Beyonce releasing hit dance albums in 2022, it’s clear that dance music is back, and black again- functioning as a means of healing and celebration in black spaces. Beyonce’s speech for her record-breaking 2023 Grammy wins rightly acknowledged the origins of the genre: queer people. Emerging from her six-year hiatus, black queer artist Kelela adds to this repertoire of dance music with her new album, Raven. Kelela’s reputation as an electronic, alternative and R&B icon allows her to show the more experimental face of the genre. The album embodies Kelela’s philosophy: to “service the people who are there in the front row and have always been there, Queer Black people.” It is a lesson in the act of self-grounding as resistance and radical self-love and community as healing. On Raven Kelela uses dance music as the entry point of exploring self.
The album sees the return of long-time collaborators such as Junglepussy, Kaytranada, co-executive producer, Asmara as well as lyrical input from club music icon, Shygirl. Songs like Happy Ending and Contact are heavily laced with synths, scattered beats and catchy hooks, which are hallmarks of the genre. However, even the dance songs don't feel entirely like dance songs. As is always the case with Kelela, there is more flesh to her output than mere musicality, such as her writing craft, heartbreak, desire and most importantly, her voice. This voice is the anchor of the album, the motif so to speak as she loops through different music styles, bringing consistency as she takes apart the genre of dance to bring her own unique take.
The first and last song, Washed Away and Far Away, sandwich the album so that it starts and ends like a fever dream. The hazy, hypnotic songs are almost two sides of the same coin, she channels the same sound sonically yet offers different iterations of her voice. Both songs are tied to the album’s theme of journeying and water. Washed Away is the incoming tide, journeying home so to speak, and Far Away is the outgoing tide, her leaving home.
The overarching feel of the album is that of pure instinct, a feature that has become characteristic of Kelela’s artistic process. Nothing feels permanent in the writing and Kelela’s staple synthetic beats make the echoes even more fleeting. She makes songs with abandon, encouraging her listeners to move along with her improvisations and lilting voice. According to Kelela, Raven was an album that came together in a week and a half, on a “first idea, best idea” basis. This is clear in the playback of the album, there is no coherent thread besides that of Kelela’s gut feeling, which sees a regurgitation of her usual content matter of heartbreak, blackness, sensuality and liberation. Raven rings differently to her previous work however as she places herself at the center of this subject matter. If her previous album Take Me Apart was about the destruction of heartbreak then Raven is about the rebuilding that comes after the storm.
One could argue that Raven’s shortcomings are songs that present themselves more as soundscapes rather than fully-composed songs. Halfway through the album, Fooley and Holier act as experimental interludes to the album’s composition but disrupt the flow. The songs are mostly Kelela mumble-singing in near incomprehensible language. It is only by listening deeply, ignoring all your other senses that you decipher what she is saying. On Fooley, her repetitive wailing translates to ‘Far away from/submerged sound.’ Kelela’s constant message of disembodiment speaks to a deep sentiment of blackness and queerness that is sometimes rooted in alienation and dysphoria but also suggests that solutions lie in the core of the pain itself. Perhaps she’s suggesting that only when we truly listen, can we decipher what is being said by marginalized groups.
Kelela manages to center her experiences of blackness, queerness, and emotions of anger and frustration without outwardly shouting it. In the years of dance music’s gentrification, her and her music have served as a reminder that dance music is black. She pushes forward in her growth, showing that she contains multitudes, accepting her multiple identities but also showing that she is in a league of her own. Raven markets itself as an electronic dance album with almost each song having an aspect of the genre stitched into it, even if it is only a thread. One might argue that it isn’t “dance enough”, but it’s a testament to there being no limit on dance music, or Kelela.