Kelela's Cut 4 Me is without a doubt one of my absolute favorite records in recent memory. Early readers may even remember its quite respectable placement in The Parallax 100, lodged in there at #70 (nothing to sniff at). Interestingly, it was initially released not as a double-gatefold album statement, but as an unassuming digital mixtape. That tape's origins lie in the L.A. singer's decision to write a set of songs around a selection of beats from the twin Night Slugs and Fade To Mind crews, haunting their striking sonic futurism with a bewitching vocal presence. The tape's Trans-Atlantic origins and down-and-dirty reality (essentially, a singer freestyling over some beats) places Cut 4 Me at odds with much now-pop, which often suffers from suffocating over-production, in which all life is strangled from the song in the process.
Cut 4 Me is a record defined by its contradictions: on one hand it's strikingly ethereal and absorbingly atmospheric, like a Detroit-inflected 4AD, while on the other it's possessed of a rugged bottom end that will ring familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with grime. With more than a hint of déjà vu with regard to the angular attack of that 21st century art form, this is RnB at its most unselfconsciously futuristic. One thinks of The Neptunes, not just their sonics but even the visions conjured up by their very name. Cut 4 Me sounds like a pop music sprung from the supersonic waters of Neptune. Bodies dancing in slow-motion beneath blacklight, iridescent skin aglow in shades of azure a million light years from home.
And yet, the strange secret is that even at its iciest, plumbing sub-oceanic depths, the record somehow maintains a warm, soft glow running through its very core. The record's lyrical preoccupation lies with love, and the battlefield that so often springs up around it, even as it plays like a soundtrack for situations and emotions that haven't even yet arisen. Future music, in other words. So, let's dive into the peculiar world of Cut 4 Me, and in the process, maybe take a peek at what's in store...
The record opens with the looping struck metal of Guns & Synths, a motif that we'll return to time and time again, before electro-shock snares snap a proto-rhythm along its bow like gunfire. Moody Detroit-style sequences (think Kosmic Messenger) arc into earshot, and then the track really begins to unfold, riding a gently chugging synth pop bassline in graceful slow-motion. In a striking twist, the bass drops out and the track seems to snap around Kelela's soaring vocals, its extreme downbeats seeming to trip into hallucinatory double-time. Her refrain is echoed by what sounds like flutes, but might well be her own vocals sped up ardkore style.
A wicked track in other words, and one that I swear has distinct shades of The Prodigy's DNA about it (particularly circa Music For The Jilted Generation). It's the sort of thing that I well could be imagining — synapses firing in distorted recognition of a flame's shadows on the cave wall — but even so, it's an impression I haven't been able to shake since the day I first heard it... so maybe there's something to it after all? The beats here by Night Slugs/Night Voyage auteur Bok Bok, which underline the play of fragile atmosphere and jagged beats throughout the record, all of which is given an otherworldly glow by Kelela's haunting vocal presence. It all seems to call back memories half-remembered, mixed together like oil in the ether.
Similarly, Go All Night — with its strung-out synth architecture and power up electronic sweeps — evokes distinct memories of the Blade Runner soundtrack, not to mention The Prodigy's ambient coda to Speedway Theme From Fastlane (which itself sampled liberally from the Vangelis score). The liquid synths hover somewhere in that undefined territory between organ and distended string-section drift beneath, while Kelela's vocals weave through it all in graceful slow-motion like an errant solar sailer.
Gliding on a post-Timbaland chrome-plated riddim trading moves with a muffled beat box, fellow Angeleno (and Night Slugs moonlighter) MORRI$' trap-style beats uncoil in the purple haze of alien dreamtime as Kelela unveils the chorus:
Stayed up talking all night.
Take my body it's so right.
Dyin' but we go all night...
Baby I don't know if that's all good.
With the unmistakable echoes of Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? in its sentiment, the hesitant longing gradually gives way to the inevitable feeling of gravity's pull (we smokin' out baby).
By now adrift through inner space, a vocodered bridge on the order of Zapp's Computer Love intones oh, my baby on loop, carrying into the next verse where Naughty By Nature chants build the zero-gravity momentum like it were the most natural thing in the world. This is Chiba City RnB, par excellence. The tune appears in two abridged versions on Cut 4 Me, interludes subtitled Let Me Roll and Let It Burn. Frustratingly — like the World Of Deep interlude on E-Dancer's Heavenly — the track isn't present here in its entirety (it was a stand-alone single). On the bright side, it does work remarkably well scattered through the record in a series of glimpses.
Further dreamtime vibes are unveiled on an extended mix of Bank Head, which seems to build on a progression of nineties — if not earlier — electronica over clickety-clack percussion. Think The Orb's Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty, particularly Readymade's Ambient State. That same sense of weightless drift, over which the vocals swerve without warning into a searing falsetto. Despite the double-time clap pushing things toward 4/4 trance territory, it's just not gonna be that simple, and everything's left remarkably unresolved.
Fade To Mind's Kingdom drags renegade kick drums beneath it all, weaving snatches of the vocal — sped-up into chipmunk velocity — its twisted tapestry lying somewhere between freestyle, ardkore and peak-era Jam & Lewis. Kelela's untreated singing is pure RnB, rendered otherworldly in sheets of intersecting sound. The roar of distant thunderclaps tremble in the distance as the track sneaks into skipping double-time, building towards track's inevitable conclusion. Kelela intones, time goes by, with no effect and with no warning whatsoever, the dream is over.
Which brings us to the more abrasive corners of the record. This is still surrealism, but one with all the jagged edges — the bite — retained in full force. The strident lead into Enemy comes on like struck sheet metal, ringing in combination against its ricochet percussion, bringing to mind the similar Sylvian-esque shades of Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner and its koto grime moves. Fittingly, Nguzunguzu (of Fade To Mind) drags in what sounds like a spiraling koto and threads it through the rapid-fire percussion, the sound of breaking glass folded into the beat like a hidden bear trap.
It's all of a piece with the frozen wastelands of Wiley's awesome Treddin' On Thin Ice LP (another Parallax favorite), with its unlikely collision of harsh grime soundscapes and occasional flourishes of vintage RnB (Special Girl). The paradoxical clash of Kelela's hazy vocals and up front, knife-edged riddims also brings to mind Alice Perera's towering performance on Smith & Mighty's Big World Small World, a record defined by its rootsical widescreen textures and often stark, post punky beat architecture.
Keep It Cool recalls similar terrain, with Kelela's soaring vocals cutting through the track like a knife, even as an almost under-the-breath delivery offers up the counterpoint. Crashing industrial beats lie at the center of Keep It Cool, building the ideal framework for a grinding Reese-style bassline to push the track into overdrive, sawing through its center with a raw and rugged fury. The sentiment of Kelela's vocal even sounds like something from an old ardkore track:
Round and round inside our heads we're going nowhere.
Focusing is hard you're telling me 'cause I'm not there.
This ain't no coincidence taking all I've got,
I almost surrendered, why must we...
Why must we keep it cool?
The effect lends an almost ungainly, staggering quality to whole affair, bringing to mind some of the best techno (thinking here of Kevin Saunderson's E-Dancer Vocal Mix of Octave One's Blackwater). The searing production from Night Slugs stalwart Jam City is firmly in the tradition of Detroit's unlikely pact between the rough and the ethereal. Flutes flutter in the rafters like digital birdsong, while synths and vocals clash with one another at jagged perpendiculars. It's at times like these that one wonders if this record isn't in many ways a vision of a downbeat vocal techno. Like the music of Dâm-Funk, it does seem to hover between both worlds...
Driving the point even further is Floor Show, a sprawling slab of machine soul par excellence. A twisting, gnarled synth lead winds through the track in slow-motion, while another Japan-style synth progression pins the counterpoint, the rhythms trading bars between muffled percussion and crashing drums. Kelela's voice soars (although, truth be told, her voice soars everywhere here) across it all, offering another biting glimpse of romantic intrigue:
Ain't never left although I tried a million times.
Wonder how it feels, I'll never know you're never mine.
You should stop the front before I catch you in a lie.
You forget my name, but you say it every night.
A stanza worthy of TLC right there, with all the subdued venom that implies. This woman's been burned one time too many. And yet it's delivered in such an uncanny manner that it manages to transcend all the drama, all the lies, watching them recede onto the horizon in a mist before arriving at another plane altogether (now that's something you don't see every day!).
This is dream city music, nocturnal and cut adrift in the same way Go All Night was, but there's also the unmistakable bitter aftertaste of trip hop menace lurking within the proceedings. Girl Unit (chalk up another one for Night Slugs) manages to blend a spoonful of RnB, trip hop and Detroit techno into a blazing cocktail of otherworldly dream pop, sounding utterly unlike anything else in memory.
Then, without warning, everything drops out but a lone ethereal synth, and Kelela breaks it down once and for all:
Giving you my everything,
You turned around and did things your way.
I try to fight the urge to define,
Letting go of things that ain't mine.
At which point the ghost town climax hits, with its towering organ refrain:
Desperate for another day,
Wish I knew the thing to say.
Spent my time building you up,
And now it's falling down.
And you're left, deserted, to walk alone among tombstones, through a graveyard of broken hearts and dreams...
Like an apparition, Do It Again creeps into view on a plaintive, shimmering synth line (something about it makes me flash on Erasure's When I Needed You). It cuts crisp and clean through the mix, driven by NA's (score one for Fade To Mind) floor tom accents in a soundtrack style. With her vocals right there in the forefront this time, unabashed and unvarnished in the extreme, Kelela alternates between drifting, drawn out phrasing and a counterpoint wherein she repeats the track's title in rapid monotone — Doitagain, doitagain, doitagain — like some sort of android left on the forbidden planet.
Plangent synth tones breathe darkness into the mix, before the percussion builds into a throbbing rhythm for the last minute of the tune's stay. The effect reminds me of nothing so much as the skittering digital percussion on The Black Dog's arty techno missives circa Spanners (particularly End Of Time and Chase The Manhattan), capturing that same sense of hurling oneself into the void without the slightest inkling of who or what is out there. Choice stuff.
The title track draws further into 1980s-style arrangements, with its sparkling tones, big drum hydraulics and a bassline that seems to bounce along the top of the rhythm like a skipped stone. Kelela's searing harmonies are at their tightest here, strikingly crisp even as the track gradually veers toward the hallucinogenic in ways you wouldn't quite expect. This is the second of the Kingdom tracks, although it's wildly different from the preceding Bank Head. That tune was one of the record's most atmospherically dreamy, while this one's surrealism hinges not on the axis of spacious production but the strange juxtaposition of its base materials. The production here remarkably up-front and in-your-face, like the clattering soundscapes crafted by Jam & Lewis on Janet Jackson's Control.
With a dejected synth pinned to a beat like collapsing buildings, Send Me Out similarly comes on like the granddaughter of Prince at his most disarmingly deconstructed — songs like Girl and The Beautiful Ones — underlining how often this record, for all its absorbing ambience, is actually quite skeletal and nimble. The sound is a rather shy one, refusing to reveal itself right away, like the first shades of spring rising from the depths of winter.
Casual synths make their cameo in the chorus, evoking imagery of ascending glass escalators is the fading afternoon sun, underpinning one of the most traditionally RnB set of vocals on the record. The third of the Kingdom productions, its faint echoes of prime electronica — shades even of R&S/Apollo, and the similarly fragile glass escalator sounds of Sun Electric circa Present, perhaps — and Paisley Park make perfect sense in light of Bank Head and the title track, rounding out a key trilogy underpinning the record.
Something Else (the second Nguzunguzu production here), is similarly deliberate and delicate, drifting at the other end from the stark percussive attack of Enemy. It's all quite stripped down, with little more than a slight snatch of analogue warmth from a synth to carry the melody, its rhythm defined by little more than a recurring snap. Fragments of a fluttering digital synth sneak in just a hint of ornate filigree, bringing to mind Kenny Larkin's shimmering Kurzweil excursions circa Metaphor. It's also another moment haunted by the spectre of trip hop, particularly Björk's Post-era flirtations with the genre, sounding something like the skeletal remains left behind by another song...
I already know, I've seen the future and it's over
Of course there's a coda tucked away in the last minute of the song to catch you completely off guard, when Kelela loops a wordless staccato to echo The Art Of Noise's Moments In Love! It's a fantastic moment of circular logic, harking back to the slice of instrumental dream pop that turned out to make an unlikely1 splash on both the Billboard Hot Dance/Disco Singles and Hot Black Singles charts in 1986 (see also Mýa's It's All About Me, with its subtle shades of Moments In Love sketched in). To this day, you can still hear Moments In Love on Magic 92.5 from time to time, a reminder that RnB and dream pop have been au fait from day one.
The plaintive recline of A Lie is probably the most dream pop moment of the record. Drifting in on pure atmosphere, it opens with twenty-seconds of the rhythm of a car's windshield wipers, seeming to capture the moment the rainclouds part as the wipers are switched off, the windows rolled down and the melody of birdsong fills the soundscape. A lonely Rhodes enters the fray to lay out the plaintive melody, and the vocals drift like mist across its surface, finding Kelela at her most solemn and wistful. The effect reminds me of nothing so much as Locust's dream pop masterpiece Morning Light (particularly Jukebox Heart).
Grey and cloudy, it rains every day
The vocals might be the record's most traditionally RnB, evoking the peak-era balladry of SWV and Aaliyah, particularly their turn in the chorus:
Bound, though you are free to do what you want.
It'll be just fine and I know it.
The second of Bok Bok's soundscapes (after the opening Guns & Synths), there's a fitting shadow of jungle in its errant bleeps, slipped into the placid atmosphere in such a way that should break up the magic yet only adds to the whole effect. I'm once again reminded of Smith & Mighty, or even More Rockers, all those junglist torch songs on Dub Plate Selection Volume One and Selection 2 like I Need Some Lovin', Kissing Game and Rainbows. Like everywhere else on this record, there's such a powerful sense of atmosphere swirling around the song that it compounds its gravity until you can't help but be drawn in.
It's only a matter of time, couldn't hate you forever.
It all comes full circle with the closing track, Cherry Coffee, wrapping up with a fusion of nearly every aspect of the record that's come before. Starting with nothing but a rhythm tapped out on a shard of metal, sounding like sonar in the deep, it lasts a solid minute of isolation before spectral synths shear into view with an effect that splits the difference between spooked and soothing. This is pure ambience, reminding me of nothing so much as the first Alter Ego record — especially the languid pools of synthesizer in Soulfree — and its sleeve's evocation of Joe Henderson's Inner Urge perfectly hints at the mood shaped here.
A fretless bass provides the tune's central melodic motif, along with most of its rhythmic propulsion, before piano chords drop in out of nowhere like a relic from the relics. Much like the pianos that turn up unannounced amidst the lush techno of Octave One's Burujha, they seem to conjure up the mood of 1970s invisible soundtracks and all the imagery that implies. Put crudely, we're talking about The French Connection, Curtis Mayfield record sleeves, Herbie Hancock's shirts and the orchestral arrangements of Charles Stepney all swirling in a mnemonic mist.
The vocals weave a tapestry in the same way Janet Jackson's often would, something like the mahogany moodiness of Velvet Rope by way of Control's chrome futurism at its most wistfully atmospheric. The almost Liz Fraser-esque vocal treatments (think Cocteau Twins circa Four-Calendar Café and her angelic cameos on Mezzanine, with just a dash of Mýa thrown in for good measure) mesh beautifully with the ambient synth washes and a sublimely delicate atmosphere is conjured up deftly in the blending of the two. Little surprise that it's Jam City behind the boards again, with his firm grasp of Detroit-inflected futurism. Its a perfectly executed Gaussian drift, and the perfect ending to this stunning record.
Unexpectedly, Cut 4 Me was later issued on both double CD and 12" vinyl a couple years later, coming on the heels of The Parallax 100 and my demand that it come out on wax... not that I want to take credit for it or anything. Actually, it was bound to happen either way: the record works as such a perfect album experience, it would have been a crime if it hadn't happened. The truth is, this is one of the great RnB albums of the 21st century, which itself has hardly been a slow era for the form (if not its very peak).
Indeed, Cut 4 Me is a sketch of everything of-the-moment RnB should aspire to. Transcending its rugged origins even as it uses them to its benefit, what began life as a mixtape puts to shame the lion's share of the more self-consciously important album statements in recent memory. This is a music from the outer rim, deep space music that links everything from Detroit techno, low-slung trip hop, chrome-plated RnB and rave's morning-after come down in a stardust constellation of pure machine soul.
And yet this inscrutable, nebulous music soundtracks the vagaries of the heart, matters that will resonate with most of us. I Second That Emotion, and so on and forth. For all it's futurism, this music is of a piece with the lush, Another Green World-esque smooth soul of Marvin Gaye circa Here, My Dear and the fragile soundscapes of the Trouble Man OST. In fact, the unspoken truth of the matter has been with us from the very birth of machine soul: that within its tricky rhythms, liquid synth architecture and futurist intent, lies an all too human heart. A contradiction perhaps, but above all else, that's what makes it so special.
Or, perhaps not so unlikely, considering The Art Of Noise's prior pedigree: placing in at #2 on Billboard's 1984 New Black Artists chart and records like Beat Box and Close To The Edit placing at #10 and #17, respectively. Not to mention their work on Malcolm McLaren's incursion into electro/hip hop D'ya Like Scratchin', another record that had an outsized influence on RnB of the next decade (and beyond).