“Take Me Apart,” the title song from Kelela’s debut album, is a spiraling, labyrinthine seduction. “You don’t know my bed/well tonight you might find out,” she sings quietly. Within moments a muffled beat has quickened into a thudding double time pulse as she commands “Take me apart.” She backs off, “afraid of fallin’,” only to get swept up again. There’s a swerve, abetted by a jazzy close-harmony choir of Kelelas, as she notes she’s been up late writing a song, then gives a mandate — “Don’t say you’re in love/Until you learn to take me apart” — on the way to another burst of double time and a dreamy, satisfied coda.
Desire and distance, heat and cool course through Kelela’s album. It’s a digital phantasm, a matrix of synthetic sounds enfolding countless tracks of Kelela’s vocals. Yet for all its electronic metamorphoses, the goal it achieves is intimacy, as Kelela whispers and coos about all the shifting modalities of getting close to someone. She makes sure that virtuality leads back to physicality.
The album arrives after lengthy preliminaries. Alongside performers like FKA twigs, SZA and Tinashe, Kelela (whose last name is Mizanekristos) was part of a wave that was called future R&B when she released a mixtape in 2013, “Cut 4 Me.” It announced her alliances with producers associated with the Night Slugs label in England and the similarly minded Fade to Mind label in Los Angeles, who favor subterranean bass tones, abstract syncopations and gaping spaces. Her 2015 EP “Hallucinogen,” with Björk’s frequent collaborator Arca joining her production stable, was more supple but no less spooky.
With “Take Me Apart,” instead of moving from the clubby fringes into commercial pop, Kelela remains stubbornly in between. There are more layers in the tracks, especially of her voice — how many times did she sing these ahs and ohs? — while some obvious signposts of pop structure are concealed. Foregrounds and backgrounds often overlap; verses and choruses aren’t always clearly demarcated. The songs are intricately plotted to give the illusion of being impulsive and obsessive, buffeted by shifting emotions: by turns sensual and wary, vulnerable and guarded, leisurely and urgent.
In “Enough,” the singer is in a triangle, watching her lover’s attention waver between her and his girlfriend. It’s a symphony of instability, with a sputtering beat that comes and goes and cascades of vocal harmony as Kelela swings from euphoria to loneliness to giving the guy another chance to deciding, “It’s not enough.”
Kelela has held on to Arca and her Night Slugs and Fade to Mind collaborators while adding others: Romy Madley Croft from the xx; Mocky, who has often worked with Feist, and Ariel Rechtshaid, the producer and songwriter whose credits include Adele, Usher and Solange. Where all their disparate musical impulses align with Kelela, on “Take Me Apart,” is in their appreciation for Janet Jackson in her “Velvet Rope” era, purring erotic thoughts over state-of-the-art slow-dance grooves.
But in the 20 years since “The Velvet Rope,” pop attention spans have shortened, information has multiplied and the state of the art has gotten more intricate and more mercurial. The tracks on Kelela’s album have multiple sections and transformations, while the lyrics often doubt themselves, testing ambivalences and changes of heart.
“Better,” written by Kelela, Mocky and Ms. Madley Croft, has some hallmarks of the xx. It begins as a somber ballad set to basic minor chords. But its feelings are tangled. She’s singing to someone who, she had decided, “gave it their best/but you still gotta roll”; six months later, that ex is visiting and she has to insist, “We’re better off as friends/Baby you can’t stay.” But memories linger, along with a question: “Aren’t we better now?”