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The album cover to Kelela's 2023 album, Raven.
The album cover to Kelela's 2023 album, Raven.

Review: Kelela Finds Inner Peace Through “Raven”

Kelela’s “Raven” contrasts the depths of emotion with the depths of an ocean and finds herself reborn as someone freer and stronger.

Points of high tension, longing and drama through various desires in life can cause a meltdown of emotions from built-up stress. At one point or another, everybody wished they could wash away all their problems, even for just a moment of serenity. Kelela’s “Raven” contrasts the depths of emotion with the depths of an ocean and finds herself reborn as someone freer and stronger.

The album feels like a journey through water, starting at the coastline, on the surface, with the first track “Washed Away.” A heavenly trio of synths are poised under Kelela’s hums, even throughout the hums’ shift into lyrics, cryptically about a “change of pace.” The song ends with a powerful push on the original synths, and we dive into the ocean in search of a “Happy Ending.” This second track kicks off with the continuous chant of being “too far away,” before the breakbeat takes over. Sonically and visually from the music videos Kelela has put out for every single, “Raven” looks to be a love letter to electronic, ambient and dance music of the 90s: low-tech, high grain and high vibrance from low-end synths.

From solace on the shores to a lively underwater club, two tracks in and the album is as immersive as aquatic aesthetics can get. The chorus, “But we’re too far away / I’m reading all the writings on the wall / and if you don’t run away / Could be a happy ending after all,” is an absolute earworm.

After the raves, we get a track that signals a direction in the ocean that Kelela is going, which is descending, on the sensual “Let It Go.” Her love interest is stalling, like something’s on their mind, possibly the decision of staying with her or leaving.

This release comes six years after her previous album, “Take Me Apart,” which is consistently brought up and revered in conversations about alternative and futuristic R&B. “Raven,” by contrast, is a very different approach to the genre, which is a given as artists don’t usually take that long of an intermission just to repeat themselves.

“On the Run,” the third single, opens with an especially bubbly feeling and the effects on her vocals shine really well here. Her interest is on the run, trying to find their own feelings for her, but she mentions that she can’t wait forever. Rotating layered vocals with unedited ones really show off Kelela’s range. It transitions into “Missed Call” with a dial tone.

Like waves crashing on top of each other toward the beach, each song transitions so beautifully and smoothly. With the ambient R&B direction she went in, there was concern with how this album would fare for fans who loved her past work, but each track can be seen as a different hue in the center of it while the beginnings and ends of each track blend into the next so naturally. The transitions are the focal point of the immersion for “Raven,” and not once do they underwhelm.

“Closure,” featuring a verse from Rahrah Gabor, is the turning point in the album where the depth of the ocean begins to outweigh the light refractions from above, where Kelela just wants closure, emotionally and physically, to the will-they-won’t-they stage of the relationship. Bell sounds with what sounds like an 8-bit crusher on them really make the empty spaces in the song sound vast. “Happy Ending’s” dancefloor returns for the next scene.

In the middle of “Contact” on the second verse, the track breaks down and builds up as a fantastic attention grabber that shifts the entire dynamic of the song, working well within the themes of the album and as a standalone single. The dancefloor dissipates into “Fooley.”

A strained droning sound lingers throughout the track, as lyrics from “Washed Away” are flipped into something direr, as if the ending of this relationship wasn’t so happy after all.

“Holier” sounds lonely and exploratory, like Kelela is soul-searching in the ocean, assessing how her surroundings are anchoring her down and how necessary a change of pace really is. This is the halfway mark, of the track list and the themes, where self-discovery starts on the title track.

There are two common symbolisms of ravens.

The first is of omens and despair, kind of like crows from the Edgar Allen Poe era, because of the bird’s plume coat. The second, which this project takes after, is rebirth and prophecy, which can be related to how light shines off the coat to reveal something brighter on the inside.

Two synths now, on the track “Raven,” back what is the strongest song lyrically. The synths are dark, heavy and sound like a siren in the distance, getting closer and louder as the track progresses, as Kelela begins her ascending from the depths. 

“Through all the labor,
A raven is reborn,
They tried to break her,
There’s on nothing here to mourn.”

One thing Kelela found on her journey downward was control. With newfound acceptance of herself and her situation, the synths begin to cascade to a beat drop, where the album art fits perfectly, the point of resurfacing. Bouncy yet fleeting, the transition in “Raven” highlights the duality of sound throughout the track list, balancing retro ambiance and techno influences. The one-two punch of “Raven” and “Bruises” was probably the best listening experience on the album.

“Bruises” favors the dub-heavy techno half of “Raven” like an intense fight Kelela is having with her negative emotions and environment.
“Push me when I’m down,
I’m leaving, but you hound me,
Nothin’ more to say,
You can find another way, yeah,
No, I don’t wanna do another round,
You don’t know but you’re loud.”

More drums and hypnotizing details on the sonics are added as the song progresses, and emotions intensify as Kelela transforms into someone new. With the discoveries from the journey downward and support from friends who rise her up, Kelela overcomes.

“Sorbet” feels like the rewarding euphoria in the aftermath of the battle with oneself. The ambiance is the brightest it’s been throughout the album, almost like the setting is in the clouds, sky-high. Desserts like sorbet are comfort foods for a lot of people, and even if it’s for just a moment, the sweetness is well-deserved. This is where the title of the next track, “Divorce,” really surprised me.

The track is the bleakest, most ominous one, but not as oceanic sounding as before.

“Under the surface, I’m lying,
Fighting the time, now I’m drowning,”

Lyrically, the divorce with her negative emotions is officiated, and Kelela begins the search for someone else, someone new who’s better for her, or for that other person to go through a similar journey.

The second to last track, “Enough for Love,” seems to represent that search, testing the waters as a new person, back to the club. Kelela sets a boundary here, where emotional strength is needed for the relationship to work, asking her potential partner if they’re “tough enough for love.” The instrumentation maintains that 90s feel, before ending where we started.

“Far Away” is a flip of “Washed Away,” giving the three synths, coastline view and lyrics a new meaning as Kelela is a new person. Instead of being washed away from someone she was going after, she’s far away from the chaos that was strewing inside and is a grandiose finale to her journey.

This release is a refreshing change in what some may call a well-saturated genre of music, and Kelela proves herself again to be a standout vocalist with awesome production: executively produced and arranged herself and main production by LSDXOXO and ambient duo OCA. Warp Records really has an R&B powerhouse with them, and I cannot wait to see the direction Kelela goes from here.

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