March 3, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT | By Jan Alfaro

“Raven,” the second full-length album from Ethiopian-American artist Kelela Mizanekristos, was released this past February. I was excited because I bonded over Kelela with a friend I met in Berlin last year, so upon its release, I texted him “new Kelela???” He then responded with a series of voice memos where he essentially said that the album cured his depression and that he’s listened to it three times since its release. He’s also fallen asleep to it (not out of boredom though). Needless to say, I knew I had to listen to it right away. I started, stopped, and restarted my album listening about eight times before making it all the way through — which I just completed recently.

In this final endeavor, I noted all sounds, themes, lyrics, and assumptions I drew from my active listen. Atypical from other earjam formats, I chose to leave my raw thoughts as what follows. Normally, I read articles upon articles about the music I’m reviewing, but I chose to step back and start with a blank canvas, filled only with my organic thoughts. It was scary, but I’m excited to share music this way. This hour-long album can have an entire essay written about it so in my mind, these bullet-pointed tracks are presented to you as a digestible way to introduce the sounds and ideas Kelela has curated in her latest masterpiece. Notably, done through the authentic form… my notes app. So, without further ado, here’s Kelela’s emotionally intelligent and sonically immersive 15-track “Raven.

  1. “Washed Away”
    • Trance-like pulsing sounds
    • Encapsulating
    • Introducing angelic vocals. Singing “The hope, the longing, fade away, blurred-away, blurry eyed / Riding out on metal rays” and “Moving on a change of pace and I’m / Far away / Washed away”
    • Eargasm around 3:03 where this is a sonic boom. Synth? Very electric feeling with some drum kit sounds and splashing water noises
    • Ends with drowning in water—title of track
    • Setting stage, fully immersing listeners into this shadowy world of hers
  2. “Happy Ending”
    • Starts with “Too far away / You’re too far away”
    • Drum kit beat in the back. Alarm sounds. More upbeat.
    • Lyric to note: “I’ll be exactly what you want, so why the prison”
  3. “Let It Go”
    • Slowing it down with some piano and long held vocals at the end of verses
    • Starts with “Let it sink in, my love”
    • Some bass strings
    • Get a soft beat for the chorus
    • Funky beat. R&B
    • Get some spacey synths in the last 45 seconds of the track
  4. “On the Run”
    • Fade from “Let it Go” to “On the Run” is so smooth. Fades from soft, slow reverb to faster tempo percolating synths
    • Chimes before pre-chorus. Then easy drums
    • “If you come my way / I’ma want that fire / But you’re on the run”New element of fire
    • Tropical R&B
    • End has phone call sounds
  5. “Missed Call”
    • Song makes me want to run. Faster and more upbeat. Drum’n’bass laden
    • “Float away, float away on a river into the sound”
    • Difficulty of a relationship with communicating not only in person, but also over the phone, over missed calls.
  6. “Closure”
    • Head bopper with trappy medium beat.
    • Unexpected rap
    • “Talk to me, I’m feeling wavy / Back and forth and so it goes” “You should stop buggin’ / We got some things to explore”
    • Ending with “I’ma wait up”
    • She wants some closure—she wants something from her partner and is willing to wait despite the uncertainties that a relationship holds
  7. “Contact”
    • Back to fast tempo and standard drum kit sounds. Doesn’t make the song ordinary
    • “The bass in my body, I’m sinking it’s so wide”
    • “Oh it’s a sauna / Here if you wanna”
    • Slower tempo at 2:15. Feels very sensual. “Your hands on my body, the feeling is so right”. Lasts about 30 seconds.
    • Tempo sped up in last few seconds
  8. “Fooley”
    • Eerie. Warped sounds with no running beat. Deep brass sound.
    • Ambient—like “dark” Netflix show
    • “Far away from submerged sound”
    • Water sounds to end
    • One of my favorites
  9. “Holier”
    • Water sounds to begin
    • Ambient start
    • Haunting layered vocals
    • “I’ma float, yeah, I’m floating away”
    • “I don’t care what you’re talkin’ about / All the shit that you say / And I’d rather be holier”
    • Organ chords throughout. Ending sounds very angelic
    • Seems to be taking autonomy in choosing what’s best for her, which is not her partner or love interest
  10. “Raven”
    • Again, eerie sounds with deep synth coming in and out of the background
    • Then get quick, bursting strings halfway and other alien-like sounds randomly appearing
    • “It’s all good / I’ve moved on”
    • Layering starts getting intense
    • Beat hits about 2/3. “I separate closer to what I need tonight / Starting to feel my body now”
    • Synth disappears and it’s just a beat tune
    • Feeling symbolic in wanting another person, waiting for them, lusting for them, realizing she needs more, loneliness, then self-empowerment.
    • No water reference in this one…
  11. “Bruises”
    • Smooth transition from “Raven” into “Bruises” with 3 second crossfade. So smooth.
    • “Just right” starting off —justifying actions
    • “But I changed my fate, and my girl did the same / And we came to destroy”
      • Like a raven? A raven is this enigmatic and cryptic bird that is feared. Comes back to destroy. Is smart
    • Euro beat in the back. More high-pitched… I could be bopping my head to this in a dark club
    • “Apart but you’re sinking / You’re watching me work, you don’t even try”
    • Beat sloooows
  12. “Sorbet”
    • Meditative start with light drums
    • “Waves when we tough, rippling in / Need all your love right now”
    • Relapse of love. More complicated than a simple story could tell. There is history that draws people back together
    • What does sorbet have to do with this? Sorbet as a frozen dessert that’s smooth… maybe this is like love? There is this frozen and attractable meal but it easily disappears
  13. “Divorce”
    • “Under the surface, I’m lying / Fighting the time, now I’m drowning”
    • Returning to this feeling of being in water that is less treading through water like the last song but just floating
    • Eerie ending with sonar sounds
    • This could’ve been a closing song. Very somber.
  14. “Enough for Love”
    • “It’s a new day and I know you’re tryin”
    • Sounds like she’s like, ‘hey it’s a new day and I’m going to rethink love’
    • More upbeat and charming. Sounds dreamy rather than the haunting sounds of previous songs
    • Ends with sensual water sounds! Continuing theme
  15. “Far Away”
    • Transcending instrumentals
    • Repeating “Far away” with layered vocals
    • Full circle. Instrumentals and vocals are almost identical to opening track, “Washed Away”
    • More angelic belting vocals and pitches… not quite a resolution to complicated love but understanding?
    • “The mist, the light, the dust that settles the night” from first song to “The might, the light, the rain that pours the floody nights”
    • Dust turned into floody nights. Album began with a dry, arid image and ends with rained over lands. Finding solace in position and life
    • I understand this as a closure

In this album, Kelela orchestrated nothing less than a sublime and transformative piece of art that combines R&B, ambient, house, and all the in-between sounds that result from combining these genres. Like the titular animal, this album remains mysterious yet obvious in its presence. The lyrics demonstrate a relationship of love, desire, and understanding, although never pinpointed to a singular person or being. Throughout is a connection to water—Kelela sings about drowning or floating but also immerses the listener in all of these feelings. I often felt like I was floating in open water or treading through treacherous seas. Like water, Kelela sings about feelings that can be rough and blanketing yet smooth and desirable. Taking a look at the simple eerie album cover sets the stage for all complexity the album has to offer. As always, take a peek at the associated playlist for a select 10 songs, this time 10 songs from the album you can follow along with.

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