A lot of great things have been happening to Kelela lately. And one of the greatest, according to her, was hearing her new single, "Frontline," in Issa Rae's acclaimed HBO comedy Insecure.
"It was an incredible experience," says the D.C.-born, London-based R&B singer. "That's probably the most black people who've heard my music in a single instance, and that means the world to me."
The pairing makes perfect sense. Like Insecure, Kelela's music is exactly what the Tinder-exhausted world needs right now. On her debut album, Take Me Apart, she explores a lot of the same themes as the show—the messy nature of relationships and breakups, the often confusing rules of modern dating and what it's like to be a single black woman in this fucked-up world. "Frontline" is the opening track, and while the production is atmospheric and airy, her insistence on autonomy is bold and empowering. It's a song for the precise moment when you've finally had enough, when you charge out of your ex's apartment complex, still vibrating with fear and the exhilaration of freedom.
But Kelela says that Take Me Apart isn't a breakup album, per se.
"It's really about relationships, and how they evolve, and how, when you separate from some people, what happens to yourself," Kelela says. "That's what I'm the most interested in because a lot of my personal growth has come in severing ties."
Take Me Apart's sound is at once a tribute to '90s R&B and wholly Kelela's own invention. While her voice lives somewhere between Velvet Rope-era Janet Jackson and Aaliyah circa 1997, the production—from club music veteran Jam City and experimental darling Kwes, among others—is diverse and experimental, forming vast soundscapes for her to move around in.
"LMK" is made for dancing away the sadness of moving out, and "Better" has a sorrowful maturity for the afternoon when you accidentally spend two hours looking through your Facebook photos. Then there's the space-age wonder of "Jupiter," which reminds us to embrace the unknown and insists "there's a lot still to live for."
Less about the act of breaking up itself, the songs on Kelela's debut are about self-discovery, which is at once a wonderful and terrifying idea. The fear of loneliness can shackle people in unhealthy relationships for far longer than necessary. But on Take Me Apart, Kelela finds strength in being alone.
"Oftentimes, the part of a relationship that shapes me the most is the harder times rather than the great times," Kelela says. "I'm interested in using vulnerability as a tool, rather than recoiling from it. That's what the album is about."
SEE IT: Kelela plays Hawthorne Theatre, 1507 SE Cesar Chavez Blvd., with Lafawndah, on Wednesday, Nov. 1. 8 pm. $16 advance, $18 day of show. All ages. Get tickets here.