First things first, I have a confession to make; I’m a big Kelis fan. As a guy who grew up through the late 90s it was impossible not to be confronted by the unmistakable voice and attitude that she brought to the table. With tales of ‘gangster lovin’ and ‘playas not havin’ time for their needy women’ largely dominating radio airwaves, the irreverent and often relentless approach of a fresh faced girl from New York city was a breath of fresh air.
From Technicolor curls to her sense of fashion, everything about Kelis was unapologetically loud and whichever way you want to look at it, screaming ‘I hate you so much right now’ certainly didn’t adhere to any pre-prescribed formula for industry success.
What’s been most impressive about Kelis’ career since her debut hit however, is her eagerness to embrace new musical directions, with the singer having collaborated with a diverse list of artists from Bjork to Mark Ronson.
Beginning her career working with an up and coming production duo called The Neptunes, (gee I wonder what became of those guys), Kelis’ sound was raw alternative RnB, with Williams and Hugo’s off kilter digi-funk production suiting the singer perfectly.
Though ‘Caught Out There’ and debut album Kaleidoscope proved to be critically successful in the UK, it wasn’t until the release of her third album Tasty, that Kelis truly made an impression on her native audience. Experimenting with a number of producers such as Andre 3000, Raphael Saadiq and Dallas Austin, Tasty was an album that showcased elements of neo soul and rock, which complimented the gritty alternative hip-hop that came so naturally to the Harlem born singer.
Not only was the album sonically interesting, but it also contained three genuine commercial hits with the infectiously euphemistic ‘Milkshake’ backed up by the surprisingly ska influenced Trick Me and timeless electronica of ‘Millionaire’, aided by a typically brilliant verse off Andre 3000. Yet despite such success, following the release of her fourth album Kelis Was Here, just three years later she was ready to throw in the towel, disillusioned and dissatisfied with the perpetual pop rat race she perceived herself to be in. Unlike most artists however, time off from the music industry wasn’t taken up by years of considered relaxation and self-inspection, but rather by exploring another area of passion unknown to most but Kelis’ close friends. The girl whose milkshake brought all the boys to yard, had a serious fervour for preparing food.
Attending Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, Kelis trained to become a saucier gradually realising that her love for food was more serious than she once thought; indeed, the singer even admits questioning whether she’d return to music after exploring another side of herself that brought her such joy.
Luckily she managed to wrestle herself away from her passion for cooking long enough to record a fifth studio album Flesh Tone, which was released in 2009. Illustrating yet another change in musical direction, Flesh Tone was an album inspired by electronic music, dance and house with the singer again experimenting with numerous producers such as David Guetta, Will.i.am, and Benny Benassi. Though some criticised Flesh Tone for sounding generic and somewhat uninspired, others (myself included) found that the album’s pulsating dance production complimented the singer’s husky and mellifluous vocals. Whilst Flesh Tone may well have lacked the commercial immediacy of some of Kelis’ most popular work, it was another example of an artist unafraid of testing herself amongst a different genre, not one in search of a gimmick.
2014’s long awaited Food finds Kelis drawing upon her culinary affinity, this time using it as the inspiration for new music and judging by the results it’s a shame it took her so long. Working with maverick producer Dave Sitek and a 12-piece band, the singer has traded in the electronics of her previous release for robust brass arrangements and live instrumentation that evokes a bygone era of classic soul. Despite another change in musical direction Food seems to exhibit an artist perhaps more comfortable than ever before in her career, with Kelis’ passion for cooking bleeding into her love of music.
Going on tour to promote the upcoming release of her new album, Kelis is taking a food truck on the road with her, selling a selection of her own recipes at festivals. Naturally Jerk Ribs are on the menu, but duck confit sliders and shredded beef with cherry sauce will also feature as if to emphasise how serious the singer is about the fuel for her latest record.
Live performances from the singer in 2014 have shown how she’s been able to adapt her old classics to bring them in line with her current musical approach; ‘Trick Me’, ‘4TH of July’ and even ‘Acapella’ have all been reinvented as purposeful soul numbers with an effective dash of brass that helps to remind us that the old attitude still persists.
Kelis has stated that when recording the album she was left with a number of songs that didn’t really fit with her eventual direction, hinting that a trip-hop follow up to Food may well be on the cards.
Yet, if Food is all we get for a while, then judging by the morsels we’ve been given, as fans we should be grateful, for songs like Jerk Ribs, Rumble and Fish Fry prove that one of pop’s most successful, if underappreciated chameleons is happy, determined and right at the top of her game.