Listeners often describe singers as sounding confident, in control of their aesthetic, taking a big step in owning their sound. Though her new EP, Hallucinogen, details a breaking relationship, insecurities, and pain, Kelela sounds more in control than she ever has. The most obvious evidence of that growth is her voice. Throughout the six-song set, Kelela gathers momentum, pounces, bursts, and recedes like smoke. But more than that, Hallucinogen shows a powerful sense of purpose, the marks of an artist making confident decisions rather than relying on the talent of a strong voice.
Over just six songs, Kelela unravels the story of a relationship falling apart, the bloom falling decisively off the rose. Rather than another album of R&B pain, however, the Los Angeles singer arranges the story backward, so that the finality of being “your ex-girlfriend” comes first and “The High” of the beginning of the relationship last. This may seem like a simple flip, but in reversing the narrative, she’s able to wrangle control from one of the most chaotic pieces of life. She recognizes the pain of the relationship’s end, but she’s already dealt with it so fully by the time she recounts it (“I won’t shed a tear, ’cause waterworks are easy”) that singing about the way she and so many others fling themselves into the perils of love (“I’ll do anything for the high”) rings that much more tragically.
Kelela also shows confidence in her new, extended production palette. On Cut 4 Me, the 2013 mixtape that launched her into indie consciousness, she largely stuck within a pocket of producers from L.A.’s Fade to Mind and the UK’s Night Slugs: Bok Bok, Kingdom, Nguzunguzu, etc. Here, though, she works with bigger names like Arca and Boots, each with their own distinctive stylistic touchstones. Kelela, however, sounds like her vocal choices alter the world around her, rather than molding to fit the production. DJ Dahi’s twinkling lights on “All the Way Down” take on a more somber tone thanks to her hazy, half-sighed delivery; Dahi is best known for working with the likes of Drake and Kendrick Lamar, but Kelela makes him sound like an alt R&B staple. Arca’s wobbly focus sounds great under her recriminations on “A Message”, imbuing his synths with a smoldering certainty. Kelela herself even gets a co-production credit on the bouncy, icy “Rewind”, the most upbeat and danceable track of the bunch.
Though she definitely owns the choices, they aren’t always the most daring. Most of the tracks here fit into the Weeknd-dominated pop R&B landscape. The EP lacks a big production punch, instead remaining consistently wobbly and reedy. The choice fits the narrative, but Kelela’s newly developed voice deserves a blockbuster moment. “Rewind”, while a total blast, could be slipped into a decades-old playlist without many people noticing; the spoke-sung bridge and reverbed giggle sound delightfully retro (not to mention reminiscent of another R&B artist with a recent release: Janet Jackson). Some bolder choices are made lyrically. “What’s my name? Better say it twice/ You’re my bitch tonight,” she asserts on “Gomenasai”. On “All the Way Down”, she again goes the dispassionate Abel Tesfaye route: “Where we going now?/ Build it up, we tear down/ Cared before but baby/ Now I don’t give a fuck.” These songs may not differ much from the alt R&B boys club, but Kelela’s voice changes their angle of attack, more resigned and steely than aggressive and volatile.
In that way, Hallucinogen shows Kelela’s remarkable confidence and strength through a fragility and willingness to admit faults and weaknesses. She chooses the cold landscapes of the trap beats, iced synths, and empty spaces to show that these too are places where she can thrive, even when everything has been stripped away. The EP is an artistic statement of growth, a first step that bodes well for the album that will inevitably follow — and hopefully one that will take larger steps into even lesser worn territory.
Essential Tracks: “Rewind”, “A Message”, and “All the Way Down”