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Kelela - Autumn 2022
Kelela wears clothes and accessories PRADA AW22Photography JUSTIN FRENCH Styling GLEN MBAN

And raving is reborn: why Kelela’s new album is the future of club music

The artist’s comeback record, Raven, is long overdue – both for her fans and for club culture

It’s a familiar path: a revered musician ventures from North America to Berlin in search of inspiration. Lou Reed did it. David Bowie did it. Peaches did it. Jeff Mills did it. 

Kelela did it in early 2020, planning to record her second album in the German capital and blaming writer’s block when she struggled. Not just that though – she also cited capitalism and white supremacy as the root causes of her perfectionism: “Perfectionism, I would say, is one of the central components of the culture of white supremacy,” she told the Guardian’s Tshepo Mokoena late last year. “This idea that: ‘I should be generating more. I should have a larger audience. I should always have more than what I currently have.’” 

The album took another three years. But it’s finally here, six years after her debut Take Me Apart, and close to a decade since she announced herself to the world with her game-changing, spine-tingling mixtape Cut 4 Me. When that record came out it felt like a coalescence, a culmination of transatlantic cross-pollination in the years after grime and dubstep and funky, its producers building stepping beats among the narcotic fog of Kelela’s bewitching voice.

By contrast, Raven arrives as a relief, consolidating a shift in club music that’s been brewing for nearly three years – and is long overdue. No longer is coverage of electronic music dominated by white men making moody techno. No longer are clubs awash with black t-shirts and tetchy, sexless atmospheres. A new era of free, experimental, all-inclusive, fist-biting, leather-clad club music is here. And Kelela is its queen. 

Ironically Berlin is at least partly to blame for techno’s decade of gridlike stasis. When Detroit techno pioneer Jeff Mills took a residency at Kreuzberg’s Tresor nightclub in the 1990s, the city was alive with creativity, an unchartered land of bohemian energy in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It became the techno capital of the world — and it still is. 

But as the decades wore on and Berlin made techno into a global institution, its cognoscenti became an increasingly exclusive club. Mills, once the image of electric innovation, was increasingly pompous in interviews. During the 2010s key figures in techno were embroiled in controversy, like Nina Kraviz, for misappropriating the Black culture that had birthed the scene, and Mills’s fellow Detroiter Derrick May for the serial (alleged) sexual abuse of women.

The sound suffered too. Whereas the best house, disco and rave music evokes the carnal ecstasy of great sex, the past decade of pounding techno was more redolent of someone trying to unblock a toilet. 

Kelela flies in the face of all of this. Her music drips with primal desire, her voice quivering “with the intimacy of a breath on the back of your neck”, as Mokoena so perfectly puts it. Raven is unequivocally the work of a Black, queer musician, reminding us that without the gay clubbers, bathers and voguers of New York, without the Black and gay house DJs of Chicago, without the Black, working-class jungle and garage and grime artists of London, modern electronic music would barely be worth listening to. And Kelela manages to celebrate these communities without selling them out, resisting the urge to play shows in countries where homosexuality is illegal, or venues that exploit their employees

On Raven’s title track, a sublime, utterly transcendent piece of beatless sexual beauty, Kelela sings “Through all the labour, a raven is reborn; they tried to break her, there’s nothing here to mourn,” over a chilling instrumental that could easily be from Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Sicario soundtrack. She’s singing – you’d think – about herself, returning after years in the wilderness, channelling the imagery of a phoenix but deliberately choosing a bird with the blackest of feathers. 

Yet there’s a homonym, nearly, almost definitely accidental, which chimes spectacularly with the times to which she speaks. If you suspend just a touch of disbelief, she could be singing “raving is reborn”, dissolving the past decade of club music stagnation and throwing open the doors to a new, fruitfully free era.

Also, at the song’s coda, comes a beat; a syncopated techno drop with the rhythm of a sidestepping Carnival dancer. It’s one of many bits on Raven that would – nay, will sound unbelievable on the speaker stacks of Nowadays, Panorama Bar, Corsica Studios, or wherever the fuck else. The beat on “Bruises” might be dub techno, or garage, or Burialesque dubstep, but whatever it is, it’s irresistible, a shuffle and a tap beneath that breathy voice urging you to “step it up a little baby”. At times, the unbridled audio-aphrodisiacal power of Kelela’s music borders on the uncanny, particularly on skin-crawlingly good “Sorbet”, or the slow-grinding “Closure”, which writhes and gyrates in a hypnotic cadence faintly reminiscent of Usher’s “Tell Me”.

It stands to reason that nobody self-possessed enough to keep and regularly update a sex playlist will ever get the chance to use it – but if you do have one, you may as well simply lift Kelela’s entire discography into it. If you must introduce any variation, you could do worse than to explore the artists who regularly appear in the production credits of her records, or those who clearly bear her influence, or share her approach to raw, instinctive club magnetism – artists like Asmara, LSDXOXO, Bambii, Fauzia, Gaika, Bok Bok, Kelsey Lu, Shygirl, FKA twigs, Martyn Bootyspoon, Abra, Jessy Lanza, Dawn Richards, Erica de Casier and Ojerime. It’s these people, and those who follow in their path, who suggest a positive future for the sound of the club. 

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