The raven is a historically symbolic animal. Though it has served as an image of loss, ravens have also been represented as psychopomps, creatures that guide departed beings between the material world and the afterlife. Kelela’s new album, Raven, hinges on mediating between worlds. Her music is always experienced at this mediation, as past projects operated at the nexus of digital and material, whisking together her gossamer vocals with electronics that sounded like trapped spirits trying to break free. It felt like both a testimony to her influences (most notably, Janet Jackson) while also covering new ground in both dance and R&B music. Her songs paint poignant portraits of vulnerability, weaving together stories of broken relationships, no-strings-attached sex and euphoric romance.
Kelela noted that Raven came about “from the feeling of isolation and alienation I’ve always had as a Black femme in dance music, despite its Black origins.” These are issues that she’s been outspoken about in numerous interviews, but on Raven, they are much more integrated into the fabric of the music itself. The result is a poised symbiosis of back-of-your-neck whispers and distanced atmospheres and an impassioned narrative of rejuvenation and reflection.
Raven begins with “Washed Away,” the first single on the album. It’s the perfect introduction; the effortlessly light synth instrumentation sounds like it’s just emerged from water, paralleling the assertions of the title’s namesake. The minimalism feels purposeful, as the non-lyrical vocal runs and drumless instrumentals convey the image that she’s begun anew.
Every so often, Kelela strips her songs to their essentials. Take the song “Let It Go”: Instrumentally, there are piano chords, a creeping bassline, some percussion and extraterrestrial chirps that fade in and out at different parts of the song. Kelela’s singing sounds as tender as ever, but feels more subdued than in previous undertakings. There’s something so hauntingly beautiful about the instrumental gaps in her singing if almost to reckon with her past emotions — for just a moment, it feels like your mind disengages from your body
This detachment becomes intimately embedded in the album’s soundscapes. Where Kelela’s 2017 album Take Me Apart was foregrounded in wintry atmospheres, an unforgiving onslaught underpinned by the delightfully scenic landscape, Raven is cold and barren. “Closure” has the ambiance of an empty alleyway at night, where the sound of pipes dripping and distant ambulances are substituted for hi-hats and reverberating metallic keys. Even Kelela, talking to a lover, sounds eerily distant from us as her vocals fade into the back during feature RahRah Gabor’s animated verse. Spread across our ears and slathered in reverb, the sounds of Raven feel like they’re playing from a speaker a mile away. Vocals sound haunted, instrumentals spectral — the songs reach out, the emotions sink deep into our skin. It conjures an atmosphere that is unsettling yet captivating. Simultaneously, it functions as a tale of resilience, reflecting on her strength through these experiences.
Of course, as an album inspired by her relationship with dance music, Raven is infused with the electric sounds of the club. Kelela’s collaborated with several prominent electronic producers — LSDXOXO, Asma Maroof, Bambii — who give Raven an edge, drawing from UK garage, techno and drum-and-bass, among other genres. “Missed Call” gashes the listener from the first second, but when the drum break comes in, it transforms into a dynamic experience. Kelela muses on reconnecting with a past lover, her voice sounding defeated, but the variations in her tone also prop it up with a slight optimism, whether or not she’s successful. The breakbeat sounds disordered and fearful, which parallels her uncertainty well. On other songs, like the single “Contact,” they sound comfortable and stable, almost as if Kelela herself is controlling them.
The centerpiece of Raven is the title track, a profound testament to her fortitude. Opening with an ominous, buzzing synth line, Kelela sings with grit: “Through all the labor / A raven is reborn.” As the song progresses, the winding synth gets louder, harmonies flourish in the background and it reshapes itself into a grand, sweaty club anthem, as a barrage of deep kicks pound away like they’re caught outside in a storm. The raven’s depiction as a psychopomp becomes one of rebirth, producing a reinvigorated energy that courses through the veins. The crossing of worlds positions the raven as a symbol of transformation; battles are not permanent, but simply one part of constantly shifting experiences. Raven offers affecting narratives of Kelela’s renewal and affirms the queer, Black legacy of dance music.
Daily Arts Writer Thejas Varma can be reached at email@example.com