Kelela’s Skull Soundtrack

If you look inside a wildebeest skull, after scavengers have removed its contents, you’ll see a layered structure of thin sheets. This was explained to me by a South African strawberry blonde safari guide, who spoke of how this ‘spongey network’ of bone tissue regulates temperature, with a range of 7 degrees celsius. I looked at the skull-segment in his hands, whilst a single black earbud played in my ear.

I was listening to an ambient album named Passive Aggressive, ‘ambient’ by iTunes allocation and by nature; it melts into background sound, fading frequently to silence and rarely breaking outside of light, high pitched frequencies. The music didn’t interrupt my thoughts or environment, it swayed and shimmered alongside, like the fractured light that reflects off a river on a sunny day. I had recently had a pretty major argument with my ex, and was using the music to regulate my brain, to rewire it so that I could better appreciate my surroundings.

In Ben Raitliff’s essay on musical memory, he discussed how records create a sonic space for the listener; the simplest cases simulate sitting in front of a band alongside a hushed audience. He talked of the intimate way the double bass is recorded on Bill Evans’ 1977 album Quintessence; ‘the sensitised strings yield a kind of tap every time a note is sounded’. It’s like standing with one ear at stage-front, and the other ear hovering above the Mr Bass player’s fingers.

This kind of space manipulation can be exciting or frustrating; I love Quintessence, Raitliff can’t bear it. As the years roll on and more complex equipment slides into recording studios, Raitliff’s spaces become more confusing; ‘In the most extreme cases the human has no place in the picture of a song… we’re listening to a fabrication.’ The example he gives is Kanye West’s The College Dropout, stating that the only way around this is to simply picture the era captured by the album’s booming drums and high-pitched soul samples.

I think there’s another option is to whittle down this sonic picture. Picture Kanye West, a sweating, spitting person, and the music, reverberating into his ears from solid, high-tech speakers. The spatial facts beyond that are unimportant, as Kanye’s music is devotedly descriptive of I, Kanye. The space is specified by its being dominated by his voice and mood; he might be performing in a stadium or crying in a bedroom, but he’s definitely doing this right in front of you. His album is a tool to get the listener right into his personal space, to dissolve awareness of your environment.

The point of this piece isn’t to give perspective on Jazz music or Kanye West. I want to give perspective on Kelela, an American R’n’B singer who built her career collaborating with a group of underground London dance producers named Night Slugs. The first ‘proper’ clubnight I ever went to was a Night Slugs event, and it melted my brain. It was like a gay club for the replicants from Blade Runner, or a post-apocalyptic escape vessel whose inhouse dancefloor had to unify lovers of 80s funk and grime.

A few years later I was chatting to a friend who produces pretty amazing music, and had introduced me to Night Slugs. He asked me if I had heard Kelela’s new album Take Me Apart, and said in typically dramatic form, ‘it’s amazing what they’ve done’. In an interview, Kelela differentiated the album from previous projects whose creative process involved cutting up and reorganizing producers’ premade tracks, without changing their essence. On Take Me Apart, she actively remixed and collaborated with producers on each track’s sonic structure.

The result is a record that obviously deviates from the landscape of British Dance music but does so without breaking the aesthetic. It reminds me of the Shard, a skyscraper that’s not beautiful by any standards, but does add a striking and consistent presence to London’s murky skyline, one that would make no such sense in New York.

I often struggle to listen to the album, as I can’t stop repeating its first track, Frontline. It makes me feel nervous and excited, energised and slightly afraid, as it recalls the most exciting and devastating nights of my life, raves and breakups. Skittering beats and deep liquid bass swirl and swell up and down as Kelela sings to her now-ex, with self-doubt and self-assertion alternately seeping into her voice.

The overall sonic meld is so thorough that it no longer makes sense to picture Kelela’s sonic space as an objective reality, it’s more like you’re placed directly inside her skull. There’s still a sense of space; the record is clearly set at night, in the city, and close enough to a nightclub that you can hear its metallic echo, through memory and tinnitus if nothing else. For fans like me who hanker for new musical flavours, it’s exciting enough that the record respectively captures the characters of Kelela and Night Slugs’ London without watering either down. But the reason Take Me Apart is a great album, is its depiction of the way that music can seep into your head, the way that bass and anger and chords and love can meld in your eyes, so that one woman’s dark unpleasant room is another’s utopia.

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