The thing about debut albums is that, with a few exceptions, there’s not much to compare them to. Maybe there will be a buzz-building EP (Black Kids), or a few singles that no one can get enough of (Lorde). But generally, they’re a clean slate.
Other than live performances, most of the expectations surrounding L.A.-based singer Kelela’s debut mixtape were culled from her collaboration with Teengirl Fantasy, “EFX.” And though that track definitely sparked interest, Cut 4 Me is the kind of debut that comes brimming with possibilities, because, in a world where everyone knows what everyone else is eating all the time, Kelela was, and remains, relatively mysterious.
What isn’t a mystery is if this mixtape is good or not. It is—oh it is. It’s a sparse but filling collection of flawlessly crafted R&B pop gems, squeezed dry of any sonic excess that tends to signal uncertainty. The mixtape’s production credits are impressive: Bok Bok, Nguzunguzu, Jam City, Morri$, Girl Unit and Na—all associated with the futuristic and carefully curated electronic label, Fade To Mind. Despite these visible names, their work on Cut 4 Me is delicate, reigning in their influence just enough to keep all ears firmly on Kelela’s vocal chords.
It opens with the appropriately titled Guns And Synths, that utilizes both those sounds as an undercurrent to Kelela’s moonlit whisper-croon. The track sets the stage for the rest of the popping, thawcking beats that always take a backseat to Kelela’s honeyed vox—and for good reason too. Her voice is like the glassy surface of a lake, that even the slightest wind could disrupt. The Kingdom-produced Bank Head features shivering percussion that hops around minimalistic synthy snaps as Kelela sings about that feeling that comes with potential love. Cut 4 Me‘s title track rolls out with a jingling crescendo like Suzanne Vega’s Luka, but crushes it with a kick of percussion until Kelela drops in to show off her untethered vocal range.
The album closes with Cherry Coffee, a slow-throbbing track that opens with over two minutes of music, carefully spaced like a clock ticking, until Kelela jumps in, once again weaving her vocal tempo within the guazy sonic waves. Cut 4 Me ends leaving the listener with a dizzying feeling and a cooly slowed pulse. Now we have expectations.