Kelela Mizanekristos, 34, is unafraid of feeling and owning what she feels. She exists in Blackness, queerness, love, and womanhood. An understatement of the obvious, the way she excels in music insinuates how she thrives in herself: with patience, grace, and attention to detail that’ll sacrifice time without consequence. This pains all who’ve given her early adoration; outside of her 2013 breakout Cut 4 Me and 2015’s Hallucinogen, the work of Kelela’s lived long in limbo outside of spare appearances alongside acts like Danny Brown and the Gorillaz. As her definitive piece slowly revealed itself, obliging the anticipation behind it by building even more, it seems that she revealed herself to herself even more. And behold, she breaks the radio silence in a year when Black women continue to seize and shake the pop discourse. Though, isn’t that every year?
Take Me Apart is a romance record taking root in the familiar while eschewing cliche and convention. To isolate the signs of a breakup album is to tell a fragment of the tale: in just under an album, Kelela organizes the lost and found of love from ending to beginning, never sparing the false starts and half-steps. The well-mined source material lends itself to Kelela’s unbelievable range, from heartbreak ballads to playful odes primed for the sex playlist. She’s timely and timeless, like hearing Aaliyah on Arca, or Janet on a Jam City beat. Her voice, gentle and firm, syncs the electronic and R&B of her youth, the yesteryear and the tomorrow. She’s never too far away, even when the manipulation swirls her adlibs around the track or distances her via a lonely reverb. Her longing vocals are layered over nightclub bass and otherworldly synths, and pressed against subtle cues - the car starting on “Frontline” and the raindrops on “Jupiter” - lending tension to the scene, the album’s narrator becoming any one of us thinking about someone else.
And that’s the beauty within, Kelela weighing teachable moments and expert shade from the corner of every memory. The title track plays as a teenage memory as Kelela tells her lover to be gone by the sunrise, that rekindled passion later doused by the reflections of “Better” when that love doesn’t work yet everyone’s trying to be alright. “Truth or Dare” brings new fire to the bedroom, while “Onanon” feels like finding one’s ground after the first argument. Aristotle’s modes are all present, and our protagonist navigates the romantic and negotiates the erotic with an unparalleled maturity one only acquires by loving long and living longer. As the narrative progresses, Kelela gives permission, galvanizing the listener to trust the process and own all the mess and blessings to come. She’s unapologetic enough to know when to apologize, she changes her mind, and she’s come to free herself of her chains by taking the dive.
The first line of “Turn to Dust” - “First off, I’m not new to this…” - frames Take Me Apart as a whole: a masterclass in healing, building, and vulnerability. Kelela didn’t write her own songs until her mid-twenties and didn’t drop a debut until her mid-thirties; that debut dares to blend the classic and experimental aesthetics of the R&B form, place them on left-leaning sonics, pay homage to Kelela’s predecessors, and maintain accessibility without compromising progressive ideas. She’ll surely earn the SZA and Solange comparisons; the latter’s message more grand and focused on the world, the former more eager to spill its consciousness onto the page and spare no detail. Take Me Apart rightly joins that pantheon, offering its own meditations on love and liberation with a seasoned perspective and veteran execution unlike anything else in its class. And like her contemporaries, Kelela achieved such a feat by embracing time in an industry bent on setting the clock on Black women’s time to be, let alone be great. It’s time for a 34-year-old breakout to change the game again, and Take Me Apart is poised to break that barrier, too.