There was a time when intensely dark, heavy music was confined to the underground. This was the same time rhythm and blues was dominated by people like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. But as artists like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean find their way to the top of the carts, they’ve not only found a path to success for themselves, but have cleared the way for a whole new breed of R&B musicians to make waves within the genre. One of these new musicians is Kelela.
Though Kelela was not on the cutting edge of what has now been deemed “PBR&B,” she was one of the most critically successful adopters of the new sub-genre. Her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me garnered attention from the likes of the Guardian and Pitchfork, and was praised for its authenticity and driving beats, some of which can be found on Hallucinogen.
At its best, this EP is pulsating and gorgeous. The project opens with the lead single, “A Message.” Kelela demonstrates total control of her falsetto, and layers her harmonies with care. The chorus feels huge and booming, yet haunting. This holds true for most of the track listing; her upper register tends to be much prettier, and it works better over the production. However, when she sings in a lower tone over her verses, I’m not quite as captivated. The instrumentals are so dense and brooding that, to separate themselves, the vocals should really be bright and energetic; unfortunately, they aren’t always that. The exception is the final track, “The High.” As Kelela moves past the second chorus (and the three minute mark of the song,) her voice picks up steam and dominates the backbeat. It’s too bad the track drops off before the dynamic are really pushed to their limits, but still.
As I’ve said, there are times when Kelela’s vocals fall flat on Hallucinogen, and the production is not always able to carry itself. I found that the rhythm section was often pretty lackluster. The drum lines are skeletal and, coupled with the sparse sub bass patterns, were usually not enough to make an interesting groove. “Gomenasai” almost felt like a generic trap beat. I was pretty disappointed by this, especially after hearing what could be done when the drums were given a lot of attention. On the title track, random percussive elements floated in and out of reach, creating quite a psychedelic rhythmic offering. Over this beat, Kelela experimented with auto-tune, creating something very atmospheric, but not totally compelling.
Random moments of both good and bad shine through on this EP; the cascading synth melody on “All the Way Down,” the meandering chorus on “Rewind.” There seems to be a conflict between the dark and ethereal, and the bright and pretty, though this is what makes Kelela’s music interesting. I’d love to see her perfect her own R&B brand, but she may need to give up some of the identifying qualities she’s already established for herself a musician. Her ominous tone does not always work in her favor.
Written by Preston Fulks