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Kelela’s debut ‘Take Me Apart’ is a captivating, deeply personal exposition on heartache.

(Mr. Oxblood/ Flickr)

“There’s a place you hold I left behind, I’m finished,” are the first words uttered by alternative R&B singer Kelela on her long-awaited debut of the album“Take Me Apart.” This first line of “Frontline” feels vacant as it takes its listener to the beginning of a breakup. She is confident, unapologetic and determined to move past this relationship. Unbeknownst to her, this is only the beginning. She must go through much more before truly being finished.

“Take Me Apart” tells this story in two sections. In the first, Kelela says goodbye to and reels from a failed relationship. In the second, a new exciting, turbulent relationship begins to resemble her first.

Immediately following “Frontline,” the certainty that she would move on unscathed quickly falls apart. In “Waitin,” after seeing her ex, Kelela quickly begins to regret her decision and hopes there is a way to rebuild the broken relationship. In “Take Me Apart,” she attempts to do just that and is almost able to resurrect it, until the following track “Enough.”

“Enough” diminishes any glimpse of hope this relationship had left. Even with simple melodies and sustained vocals, Kelela is at her most compelling point. With a barrage of vocals pivoting back and forth, “Enough” creeps inside our headspace. This song is an overwhelming wave of emotion. Kelela is now deeply vulnerable; her vocals are frigid over an already hollow production. Through her performance, she is able to convey putting every ounce of energy in trying to leave this person behind. Then, “Enough” ends with a fatal question: “Will your love ruin my heart?” With those words, she begins the healing process.

This healing begins with “Jupiter,” a song named after the synth used in it. With this synth, the song feels intensely isolated. Named for its ability to conjure cosmic sounds, the synth offers a repetitive line put over rainfall, chimes, and a hollowed percussion. Kelela is alone, in a self-reflective state, trying to heal her broken heart.

“Jupiter” is followed by “Better,” the final farewell to the unable-to-be-resuscitated relationship. Kelela accepts that the relationship is over, but that the two will always care for each other. The somber chord progression over the artist’s consoling lyrics are what make “Better” more about mourning the death of a valued part of her life.

Songs like these show Kelela at her strongest. Her ability to tell stories and express emotion through a production that reflects her moods in such a sophisticated manner creates a masterful project. Not taking the time to carefully examine each track feels like a disservice to the amount of prowess Kelela exemplifies in her debut. At this point in “Take Me Apart,” the singer has already given an album’s worth of reflection, intimacy and thought. She surprises us further by quickly catapulting the listener from despondency to tenacity.

Dark and tantalizing, “LMK” has a 90’s R&B club feel that fits perfectly with the narrative of the song. The debut single of the album, Kelela creates an audacious yet honest take on hook up tracks. “LMK” is a call out to an admirer, a demand to know whether or not they are worth her time. This provocative atmosphere is detailed further in “Truth or Dare.”

A racy reference to the childhood game with a more developed story, “Truth or Dare” tells the story of an intimate evening with her new partner. Its lyrics are so cleverly constructed that the song oozes eroticism. The narration that concludes this track is utterly charming, one of the many intricacies that make this record excellent.

After the last two before-mentioned tracks, “Take Me Apart” begins to stray from the sentiment of the first half of the album. As the second part of this story unfolds, similarities between the two relationships unfold. “Onanon” presents a new relationship’s first conflicts. It’s dynamic percussion and mutated vocals continue the futuristic space vibe presented throughout, tying these contrasting moods together.

“Turn to Dust” continues tying both relationships together. Featuring beautiful strings, Kelela reflects on her first relationship and worries that this love has once again run its course. Its empty space brings us to where the album had started. “Turn to Dust” gives us a sense of clarity and of where in this relationship she knows she has become too involved to back out, she doesn’t want to call it off. She has found herself fully open and exposed.

Carefully crafting a unique sound, Kelela tells a beautiful, dynamic story that must be appreciated delicately. Kelela makes every single track in this album feel equally important. Not a single instrument, vocal layer or lyric feels out of place.

In soundscapes so foreign, Kelela is able to bring these alien sounds to us through her poetry. Her raw vocals express a sense of authenticity that any listener can get attached to. “Take Me Apart” does exactly what its title suggests, exposing the artist in her most fragile state.

Troy Kowalchuk can be reached at tkowalchuk@umass.edu.

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