There’s this really great new singer named Kelela who’s starting to blow up with the kind of forward-looking R&B fans who first put the Weeknd on. During the recent CMJ Music Marathon in New York City it seemed like she was everywhere, and I have a feeling that her recent mixtape Cut 4 Me and its Nguzunguzu-produced single “Enemy” are going to be on a lot of the year-end lists we’re about to be inundated with.
I had the privilege of reviewing Cut 4 Me for Pitchfork, and my take on it is that Kelela is just about perfectly poised to establish a direct connection between the pop charts and the leading-edge producers working in the underground dance music scene whose sounds are starting to show up secondhand on the Hot 100 through songs by more industry-connected producers, including ones for megastars like Drake and Rihanna. If that happens, instead of stuff that just sounds like Nguzunguzu on the charts, there could be actual Nguzunguzu beats there.
One clue that this might actually happen is Zendaya’s “Replay,” which has spent a couple of months hanging around the lower half of the Hot 100. It’s produced by Mike Schultz, who did the whole first Jeremih record, including its phenomenal breakout single “Birthday Sex.” The beat to “Replay” uses some of the same sounds and techniques used by the Fade to Mind and Night Slugs crews behind Cut 4 Me, plus some of Disclosure’s revivalist house, a few unfashionable nods to chiptune, and a handful of other undergroundish influences. While Zendaya’s single has the kind of massively hooky chorus that Kelela doesn’t yet have (and will probably need to get her hands on before she breaks big), and while it’s neat to hear a twitchy mishmash of weirdo sounds find as much chart success as “Replay” has, it also has the try-hard feel of someone trying to look cool by buying a complete outfit off an Urban Outfitters mannequin. It’s enjoyable enough, but the best thing about it is what it says about Kelela’s chances of making it this far, or further.