Kelela's 'Hallucinogen', Reviewed

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The aspects of Hallucinogen that resonate most are the same ones that did on Cut 4 Me: evocative, futuristic production and Kelela’s penchant for exploring sensual but pained moods. The musical background is often sparse, with synths and samples slowly fading in and out like signal lamps in total, swallowing darkness. That atmosphere is still incredible to get lost in.

The difference here is a small sense that the two primary elements—Kelela’s melodies and the producers’ sound sculpting—are more cohesive this time around. Two years ago, the beats were so alien and didn’t lend themselves to easy singing that Kelala’s voice just soared above them, playing in the atmosphere they were creating. In Hallucinogen, her voice takes lead, dictating when the music kicks in, cuts out, and shifts weight. A more experienced craftsman is wielding what worked before with more confidence and wisdom.

These songs work because of that symbiosis. When Kelela sings about lustful passion on “The High”, producer Gifted & Blessed backs her up with long buzzing bass and low key synths that glow like hot irons. It’s more than intoxicating — it’s imitative of that kind of after-the-club, carnal experience she’s singing about. As Kelela sings, “my lips are creeping up your neck / you shiver and try to pull back and forth,” it calls to mind an intimate sexual experience; one where you pull someone close, close your eyes, shed your consciousness and focus on all the little sensations. That’s the music, too. Every syncopated beat, every rising echo, becomes a sensation that your mind’s eye focuses on. They’re as close to tactile as you can get, while also giving the feeling of airless rooms and swirling shadows, environments that help tell the story.

If it seems like there’s only so many ways you can make songs about that, Kelela’s work on Hallucinogen dispels the notion. Her ability to investigate and twist it to other moods means you never feel like you’re on a fixed track. The joyful submission of “The High” is completely separate from the dominant “Gomenasai”, where Kelela shows off some attitude and verve as she sings “Now you’re begging for more / but you’re on your back / you’re playing dumb but you know what’s next.” “Rewind”, is a crackling love-drugged dance track that’s just a few touches away from being radio friendly, while the title track is a completely submerged dive that assimilates Kelela’s warped vocals.

It’s not something that plays as well in the daylight. But when it soundtracks your darker, interior night life, it’s like being given a tailored suit. Everything fits, and the sum effect is something sharp and modern. B