By Calum Jacobs
The moment a new artist emerges; the temptation to liken them to an act that came before can be almost automatic. Comparison, they say, is the thief of joy, yet it also exists as a convenient tool to describe something new, which is nonetheless reminiscent of the subtle shades of meaning that once characterised something else.
Kelela Mizanekristos – the L.A based, musically eclectic daughter of Ethiopian parents – is, first and foremost, a gifted vocalist and striking artist, with a sureness of delivery that suggests she’ll be around long enough to carve her own distinguished mark into the terrain she now inhabits. For the sake of argument however, I am going to dare to compare to another late great: Aaliyah.
Aesthetically they’ve little in common. Stylistically however, the slip-sliding, effortlessly cool soprano tone of Kelela’s vocals, set against the ‘ahead of its time’ production found on ‘CUT 4 ME’ unmistakeably and immediately evokes memories of Aaliyah at her purest. Were Aaliyah alive today, this is the music she would be attempting to create. Sounds that exist in the space between electronic, trap, and R&B. It’s a well-orchestrated hybridity.
Much of the music that Aaliyah blessed her listeners with before her passing was, tender, lyrical and spoke clearly of topics with which we are all familiar: love, loss and longing. However, she delivered them without reducing herself to the role of a damaged victim. This ability to retain an indefatigable sense of femininity while simultaneously keeping it ‘G’ through her choice of production and confident delivery, demanded respect from men and women alike. Indeed, men could bop their heads along (and relate) without fear of shame or reprisal from narrow-minded peers (it also helped that Aaliyah was quickly adopted by hip-hop movers such as Jay-Z, Dame Dash, DMX and Diddy as a little sister figure). It was an aspect of Aaliyah’s appeal, which in some senses defined her.
Aaliyah was also a huge proponent of the party scene. Kelela is much the same; ‘Bankhead’ – a clarion call of pulsating intensity – is proof of that. Both women are also blessed with an effortless vibrancy and that allows them to either meld with, or sit on top of any song they’re a part of. Each was also blessed with an angelic vocal range, capable of reigning in and quietly conducting abrasive and bombastic production. Kelela provides convincing evidence of this whilst riding the choppy drums and pounding synths on ’Enemy’ (a song on which she also apes Aaliyah’s trademark incantation of her name, spelling it out in a melodic adlib which is so perfectly executed that it stands out as a haunting homage) the similarities in this sense are entirely undeniable.
On the irresistible rolling interlude ‘Go All Night (Let Me Roll)’, you half expect Young Jeezy to come through and deliver a trademark 16, replete with his inimitable gravelly intoned adlibs, instead we settle for a subtle, yet effective sampling of Cam’ron’s Harlem lilt, it’s a nice, nuanced touch that enables Kelela to nod at hip-hop influences, rather than involve a rapper.
Kelela draws the listener in with a subtlety and gentleness that at are at complete odds with the production. The results are almost always bewildering, but equally rewarding. An exception from this rule comes in the form of the LP’s most potent song; ‘Cherry Coffee.’ An incessant toll, warming, persuasive bass and a weighty piano provide the perfect backdrop for Kelela’s voice to arch and soar with comfortable ease. Her lyrics – burgeoning with unwavering openness – reveal more and more with patience, “you’re in deep, I see what’s going on/it’s a twisted cycle we’ve infused with love”. It’s undeniably one of the songs of the year.
The similarities are far more deeply rooted than simple vocal likeness. So much of Aaliyah’s allure lay in her unfaltering ‘don’t give a fuck’ attitude. Kelela is much the same. Intentionally or not, it’s something she conveys on almost all of the 13 tracks that make up ‘CUT 4 ME’.
At a time where it feels as if music has never been as disposable and lacking in both honesty and integrity, Kelela’s sonically cohesive LP stands as a bastion of music which has been made for posterity. Does this make her a throwback? Perhaps. If it does, I doubt this attribute will ever act as an obstacle.
The comparison with Aaliyah has in no way been drawn to belittle Kelela, or her debut effort. On the contrary, it only serves to enhance her credentials as a vocalist and songwriter even further.