There are songwriters who start with words, and songwriters who focus squarely on melody—Los Angeles singer Kelela Mizanekristos, a pretty, petite 30-year-old with a side-shaved mane of long skinny dreads, falls in the latter camp. She writes her songs in wordless gibberish, only retroactively grafting storylines onto the economical melodies that flow spontaneously from her brain. In the case of the Girl Unit-produced “Floor Show,” a sexy, pentatonic slow jam from her new mixtape, Cut 4 Me, it was actually UK beatsmith and track co-writer Mocky who deciphered the nonsense phrase she was singing on the chorus: “He’s like, ‘That part, play it one more time, and that part is, Till the end, till the end of time,’” Kelela remembers, emphatically widening her big round eyes in near-disbelief that another human being could have intuited what she was trying to say before she said it.
It’s the kind of collaborative eureka moment that happened often while recording Cut 4 Me, which sees the Maryland native lending her gymnastic soprano to a bevy of forward-thinking, underground producers centered around the Los Angeles label Fade to Mind and its London sister label Night Slugs. But it’s also exemplary of how she’s subtly flipping the gendered power dynamics of the producer/diva relationship. If Kelela is willing to relinquish authorial control over a single line of text, it’s because she’s too busy fussing over the actual arrangements, with an ear for nuance and negative space that she picked up playing classical violin throughout grade school and frequenting jazz clubs as a teen. “That’s the subversive part of me,” Kelela says, describing her lifelong obsession with singers like Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter, whose repertoire she memorized front-to-back at the “Conservatory of Kelela,” shorthand for the basement at her mom’s house where she taught herself to sing. Even on expansive jams like “Bank Head (Extended),” a shimmering tribute to an unrequited crush that she recorded with Fade to Mind boss Kingdom, there’s a restraint to her music. “Not giving it up. Not giving it all to you,” she says, speaking of the classic jazz records that helped shape her sensibility alongside more mainstream teenage pop fare like Tamia and Mariah. “It can go off, like the drummer’s going off, like shredding basically. And then there’s other moments when it’s absolute pin-drop silence in the same song.”
Kelela connected with the Fade to Mind crew and their friends in New York and across the pond through a serendipitous series of events, beginning with a decision to drop out of college and relocate to Los Angeles to do music full-time. There, she recorded on a track with NYC electronic duo Teengirl Fantasy, which led her to link up with DJ Total Freedom, through whom she met Kingdom, and so on and so forth. “I couldn’t believe it—they were making all the choices in their music that I would make,” says the singer. Like Kelela, these Cut 4 Me guests seem to relish in the ecstatic excesses of radio-friendly pop as much as they enjoy undermining its architecture, chopping and rearranging their own beats so that a chorus swaps places with a first verse, or a bridge with a chorus. “Go All Night: Let Me Roll,” a collaboration with Night Slugs producer Morri$, even fades out midway through a vocal line, only to resume its sluggish, bass-heavy gait five tracks later, on “Go All Night: Let It Burn.” The mixtape plays out like a very carefully plotted choose-your-own-adventure game, shuttling endlessly back and forth between stretches of balmy ambience and clipped, propulsive beats, between moments in which she layers her falsetto into a counterpoint with itself and the times when she chooses to reign in these maximal instincts, even drop out for a bit. “It takes you on a journey that feels good but isn’t predictable,” says Kelela. “That’s sort of what I want to create: that experience of, Wow, okay, I like where this is going but I don’t know where it’s going next.”