When she performed at U Street Music Hall in November, Kelela was so overcome by emotion that she had to stop and restart a song. It was understandable: The homecoming gig was her first headlining show in D.C., which she left for Los Angeles five years prior, embarking on a path that has taken the District-born, Gaithersburg-raised singer-songwriter from zero to 100, real quick.
Before moving to L.A., Kelela searched for her sound while attending American University, singing jazz standards at HR-57 and Cafe Nema and even toying with indie and prog-metal. But once she moved, Kelela quickly found her musical soulmates through fortuitous friends-of-friends connections, collaborating with the members of label-collectives Fade to Mind and Night Slugs. She released her debut mixtape Cut 4 Me in 2013, scoring rave reviews for its groundbreaking mix of R&B sensuality and envelope-pushing club beats.
Kelela was soon featured on Solange Knowles’ Saint Heron compilation, cementing her status as an artist-to-watch, just as so-called alternative R&B was becoming the sound of the mainstream. She started hitting the studio with a who’s who of buzzworthy artists including Arca, who has collaborated with Björk, Kanye West, and FKA twigs. Those efforts resulted in Hallucinogen, a six-song EP released last fall by influential British label Warp Records. Hallucinogen explores the life cycle of a relationship, from tentative flirtation and blissful infatuation to life-affirming sex and painful breakup. The EP built on the already-polished sound of Cut 4 Me, with Kelela finding even more confidence in her singing and songwriting. Highlight “Rewind” bounces like a So So Def track from the future; the song served as the unofficial soundtrack for Big Four fashion shows last September.
Next up for Kelela is her long-awaited debut album. Due sometime this spring, she has named a few collaborators but released little other information about it. “Everyone says your first album is all life experience and it’s a little overwhelming,” she told Dazed earlier this year. “If I’m going to say something about the debut album, it’s this: It goes from zero to 20. Just like real life.”