Kelela sings with self-awareness, and who better to share your joys, scars and healing process with than a receptive hometown crowd?
The 34-year-old singer and songwriter was born in the District and raised in Gaithersburg, Md., before relocating to Los Angeles. Kelela’s path to music began with early exposure to her parents’ broad musical tastes, and although she penetrated as many of D.C.’s musical scenes as possible, she had not written a song of her own by the age of 25. As a result, her music reflects a fully developed knowledge of self. Her 2013 mix tape “Cut 4 Me” and 2015 EP “Hallucinogen” are rich in texture, lyrically and musically. But her debut full-length album “Take Me Apart,” released last month, is even more potent in the layered, chromatic approach to R&B that’s become Kelela’s signature.
“Take Me Apart” explores the anatomy of a breakup, the transformative in-between, and the familiar sparks of something new in a sharp, sultry manner. Kelela’s music is tailored for movement (both vertical and horizontal), yet that never overshadows her percipience. That emotional intelligence was on full display during her sold-out show Thursday night at U Street Music Hall.
Loud applause filled the room as Kelela’s silhouette pierced the soft blue light illuminating the stage. Her up-tempo opener, “Waitin,” explores the intense rush of old feelings experienced when seeing a ex in the wild. The blue light, scanning the stage like a searchlight by this point, was an intuitive cue for “Blue Light,” in which Kelela drops her guard with a new lover, rushing to act on the lust-fueled defenselessness. She brought the same energy to the steely, metallic “S.O.S.” — a distress signal to help save her from sexual frustration.
And Kelela managed to exhibit her vulnerability in other ways throughout her set. With a laugh, she requested a mulligan for “Better,” crediting her nervous energy to her mother’s presence. “D.C.: Y’all ready to go all night?” she asked during “Go All Night,” telling the crowd she loved them as they sang along. She dedicated “All the Way Down” to everyone who’s supported her since “Cut 4 Me.” Kelela made time for fun, as well: “If I weren’t brown, I’d be blushing” she said amid the breezy “Rewind.”
“LMK,” as emblematic of Kelela’s Janet Jackson influences as any part of her catalogue, scoffs at the arrogance of men who are convinced that women want to be with them simply because they’ve slept with them. “It ain’t that deep, either way,” she, joined by many a kindred spirit, sang with ego-crushing nonchalance.
The crowd applauded Kelela’s cogent articulation of her feelings throughout her set — not only her ability to deconstruct herself, shed the skin of failed relationships and forge ahead, but her ability to express that emotional maturity. It was without question easier to lay herself bare before an especially welcoming audience.