I’m starting to face the fact that I’m just an all-around culture snob. In addition to loving black indie films/series, if there’s one musical genre I semi-understand, it’s black alternative R&B, specifically in the most recent decade. If you ask any black person fairly hip to the scene, they’ll probably point you towards Kelela, and hopefully, her new EP, Hallucinogen.
Kelela, full name Kelela Mizanekristos, is an Ethiopian-American artist who lives in Los Angeles and grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland. For those of y’all who don’t know, that’s in Montgomery County, just north of my original home of Prince George’s County (so, this review is low-key me trying to account for the fact that I’m both a proud Southern and DMV resident.) Her first project, Cut 4 Me, was relatively well regarded (Beyoncé even co-signed), and even more alt-R&B fans were introduced to Kelela after her stand-out tracks on Saint Heron’s 2013 compilation album.
The EP documents the rise and fall of a relationship in reverse order, which, in worse hands, could've turned into your stereotypical overly ambitious and poorly executed indie album concept. However, Kelela’s mastered the art of making the characters in her noisily imaginative music seem like decidedly normal people, a skill that grounds the more experimental parts of her craft. Many people have compared her to the Weeknd, though in terms of narrative talents, I think that’s a bit of a discredit to Kelela. I’d say that she offers a less black-and-white portrait of the girls wooed and ultimately destroyed in her alt-R&B counterpart’s songs. The women Kelela sings about seem comfortable taking up lyrical space in her music, as well as the reins in their relationships—the second track, “Gomensai,” is one of the most feminist songs about sex I’ve ever heard.
On a musical note, Hallucinogen features some of Kelela’s brightest production choices, besides my favorite track of hers, 2013’s “Cherry Coffee.” While some of the more enjoyable aspects of Cut 4 Me included the tape’s unrehearsed quality and improvisational production, it’s easy to appreciate the Hallucinogen’s more considered sound. The EP makes Cut 4 Me seem like an experiment of sorts, one where Kelela let the riffs play out how they may, and then observed which ones she should take with her. This time around, instead of pitting instrumentals against her vocals and proving she can keep up with the music, she’s learned to make her producers work for her. This method leaves a lot more room for her newly developed range to excel—see tracks like “A Message” or “Rewind.”
Fortunately, even without the overpowering instrumentals, I can’t point to any song on Hallucinogen that feels sonically thin. I’ve been listening to “All the Way Down” non-stop for the last three days, and I’m always uncovering something in the instrumentals I hadn’t noticed before (I’d probably notice even more if I’d shell out the cash for decent headphones.) With this project, the progression of different sounds seems more cohesive, rather than intentionally scattered. All the advancements make me super excited for a full-length album from her.
The thing I really want to mention about the EP, however, is its contextual place in the genre of alternative or electronic R&B, also called “PBR&B.” The “PBR” in the acronym refers to Pabst Blue Ribbon, the beer of choice for Caucasian hipsters, and seems to indicate that many people think current indie R&B is primarily a field upheld by white unorthodox millennials. If you look at the current roster of alt-R&B’s most critically acclaimed artists, you might agree with this assumption.
I’ve had lots of conversations with self-proclaimed “indie music fans” who are supposedly “way into” PBR&B, but can’t name a single artist of color outside of The Weeknd and FKA Twigs (who are great, but also household names by this point.) I am not kidding when I tell you I had a white male friend once ask me if Mary J. Blige was considered indie R&B. This boy started listening to Run The Jewels months before I even heard of them, so him not searching to find underground alt-R&B artists is pure laziness. To me, this falls into the central problem of devaluing the start-up work of black artists by giving the primetime spots to white artists (more on that in a second.)
Many white music critics I read are also quick to compare singers like Kelela or FKA Twigs to Aaliyah or Janet Jackson, which is right, but super easy. My main complaint with alt-R&B journalism is that many reviewers treat the genre as if it’s a new sensation that came out of thin air with the first James Blake record, and thus the only points of comparison for black PBR&B artists are any other black women in music. It’s important to remember that black artists, specifically southern black women, were experimenting with electronic and alternative elements in their music long before white men started giving them credit for it.
When we talk about Kelela, we should also be talking about Tweet (whose debut Southern Hummingbird is still woefully underplayed), Missy Elliot (Southern VA), and even Erykah Badu (Dallas—also, we shouldn’t forget that neo-soul artists like Badu and our Patron Saint Lauryn Hill are huge influences for many current alt-R&B artists.) We also need to be talking about how Solange (Houston-and-New-Orleans) and her crew over at Saint Heron are undertaking some of the most important curating work ever done to black art. She’s like, basically the Samella Lewis (doing a history profile on her next month—#waitonit) of 21st-century R&B culture.
So, in short: if you know Jessie Ware and How To Dress Well and James Blake, you also need to know Kelela and SZA and Kilo Kish and Rochelle Jordan. And if you know Kelela and other current artists, then you should know about Tweet and Fatima (who still makes really great records!) and Santigold and Neneh Cherry. And I know, I know, (white) people will say that it’s not that serious, that people should be able to listen to what they want. But when “what they want” constitutes the erasure of the true tastemakers and originators of a field, I’ve got a huge problem with it. Alt R&B is, and will always be, primarily indebted to the labor of black women. I, for one, refuse to let white artists alone capitalize on that labor.
If you don’t know where to go for black alternative artists, make Saint Heron your homepage for a couple months (or, get like me, and make it the permanent one.)
To highlight some non-white female alt-R&B artists I personally love, I made a Spotify playlist for you guys (also, to use Drake-speak, those of y'all on Spotify can follow the girl here.) Eventually, there will be a playlist with the black women considered to be godmothers of this current sound, so stay tuned for that one.
To hear Kelela’s new EP, click here.
To hear her first album-turned-mixtape, Cut For Me, click here.