Brian Josephs is budgeting now for a Boosie guest feature.
If you’ve been reading think pieces and reviews on LA-based R&B artist Kelela, chances are you’ve seen the name Brandy thrown around quite a bit. It’s not a forced comparison either; Kelela herself said, “I would like to do Brandy but weirder.” The two are similar in the accessibility of their voices, but not in their plan of attack. Relationships and their inherent peskiness make up the majority of the subject matter, and a ’90s era Brandy examined it all through a girlish lens. She can do sexy, but even then, Brandy’s worldview is a saccharine one. On “The Boy Is Mine,” a duet with Monica about a situation that has a habit of reaching WorldStarHipHop exposure, has the emotional maturity of a minor. It’s a charting song, but surely there must be more to wooing the opposite sex than poorly aimed wistfulness.
But there are levels to this, according to Kelela. Cut 4 Me is weirder than “The Boy Is Mine” and other Brandy cuts in its frankness. They do occupy the same space, but Kelela manipulates it in a way that’s darker. The gloss is substituted for a drama were lust is a short-lived ecstasy and solitude isn’t punishment, but a means of protection. Take Cut 4 Mind’s opening salvo in “Guns & Synths” for instance: “I fill another application out/ I feel like quitting the fight/ And love always hurts/ When I let go it’s lookin’ up.” If you think the mixtape cover is a look of optimism, you’re bit a bit off. There’s wear here, and there’s even deeper wear behind the emotionally economical process of searching for that someone with some sort of job application. It’s detachment, but she does keep filling out those applications. It’s exhaustion mixed with a sense of longing.
Such a heavy handed focus sounds like a bit of a chore, but much of Cut 4 Me’s successes owe itself to that sort of balance — walking the line between humane hopefulness and melancholy held together by earthy pleasures. Kelela laments on “Floor Show” how she’s, “Ain’t never left/ Although I tried a million times/ Wonder how it feels, I’ll never know, you’re never mine,” before reaching a sense of emotional validity in the power hook: “Took some time to get right/ Things were lookin’ so bright.” Later on “Bank Head,” Kelela’s rescue from full-blown pessimism is great sex; “Remembering that one time/ Had to stop it’s making me hot,” she says, delivering “hot” in one breathy, orgasmic peak. Kelela touches on both the throes and beauty (however primal) with a fleet-footedness that’s attainable through her voice, which sounds accessible in a mainstream sense, and most importantly, versatile. Kelela isn’t the most powerful vocalist by any means, but she definitely makes damn sure she maximizes her tools to convey the mournful (the waste of a lover’s effort on the album-closing “Cherry Coffee”), the sensual, and the hollowness of when these experiences leave the body (“A Lie”).
Most of the production work can sound cold in the hands of lesser artists, but here Kelela wears each one like a cloak. This only adds color to the emotional grayscale. She yearns on the starry keys on “Do It Again” — produced by NA. On “Bank Head,” Kingdom’s rhythmic claps is urgent in how it closes the gap between the listener and Kelela, making her ruminations feel that much more personal. The excellent Cut 4 Me is fittingly introduced by a compact synth produced by Bok Bok, Napolian, Tariq & Garfield that has the pulsating effect of an open wound — also known as one of the moments that reminds us we’re human.