Skip to main content

Album of the Month: Kelela ‘Raven’

Flitting between the sweat of the dancefloor and the fog of the chillout room, Kelela’s latest album for Warp channels Drexciyan mythology and modern rave sonics into an aural manifesto of aquatic Afrofuturism

Six years after her monumental debut LP ‘Take Me Apart’, Kelela’s voice hits as it always does, in whispery, diaphanous textures that carry an impossible emotional weight. This time around, however, she’s chosen not to wait for the remix album before dropping melancholic bangers, singing directly over hard-hitting breakbeats in rave-ready tracks produced by the likes of AceMo and LSDXOXO. When she’s not in full-on club mode, Kelela’s voice wades through languid atmospheres of synth, leaving rippling echoes in its wake. ‘Raven’ flits between the sweat of the dancefloor and the fog of the chillout room, channelling both in an aural manifesto of aquatic Afrofuturism.

Kelela’s brand of Afrofuturism on the record parallels the oceanic mythmaking of Detroit electro pioneers Drexciya. As the story goes, the Drexciyans built an underwater utopia after being born from pregnant African women left behind to drown during the Middle Passage. A Drexciyan line might be drawn connecting the stunning album artwork — a Black woman’s face floating amidst a monochrome sea — and the sonic narrative in opening track ‘Washed Away’. After three minutes of vaporous synths and impressionistic crooning (“The mist, the light, the dust that settles the night / The hope, the longing, fade away, blurry eyed”), the track submerges with a splash, the sound of bubbles muffling the music.

The rest of the album continues this pelagic sound design, presenting an interpretation of the Drexciyan myth which centres their Black femme originators rather than the underwater utopia that ensued. Chopped by LSDXOXO, the breakbeats in ‘Happy Ending’ gradually reveal themselves through the watery murk before syncopated kicks jet forth. Kelela sings with an optimistic yearning: “Could be a happy ending after all / It’s deeper than fantasy.” 

She takes a more confident stance on the album’s dancehall-inflected third single ‘On The Run’, singing over a wobbly three-chord progression and swaying bassline: “Nothin in this world could stop us right now / Nothin in this world could make this wrong.” Halfway through, a faint dub siren signals entry into a new aquatic layer, her voice pushing through an even thicker filter.

LSDXOXO offers more breaks on ‘Contact’ alongside Asmara, producing one of the record’s more danceable songs. With an infectious swing, its 2-step kicks weave playfully around Kelela’s sultry intonations: “Oh it’s a sauna / Here if you wanna.” (The official lyrics document includes a “splashing sweat” emoji). By the end of the song, things are gradually speeding up before spilling into the next track ‘Fooley’, its final snare echoing into an expanse of sub bass. 

This is ‘Raven’ at the benthic zone, synth stabs bubbling up from the cracks as a heady trip-hop beat sets the scene for Kelela’s dreamy voice: “Far away from / Submerged sound.” She resurfaces in ‘Holier’, an airy bit of ambience before the title track.

Produced by the trans-Atlantic duo of New York’s AceMo and London’s Fauzia, ‘Raven’ is a requiem whose expansive musical trajectory belies its four-and-a-half-minute runtime. It begins as a whisper, with a minimalist two-chord progression that crescendos into a rousing chorus of piano, overdubbed vox, and reverb. Then the beat drops, and the hypnosis is complete. The headiness of the first half turns to pure body, a four-on-the-floor kick rolling with an acidic bassline before morphing again into a Jersey club kick pattern. 

Kelela reclaims vulnerability against a dehumanising narrative of strength: “Took all my labour / Don’t tell me that I’m strong.”  The album’s title track encapsulates Kelela’s artistry, a sonic statement drawing from all corners of the Black Atlantic, whose staying power lies in the murky waters between the personal and the political.