Kelis' jazziest, smokiest, most sensual, exciting, and certainly most consistent album yet.
Kelis – Food
First, let’s address the elephant in the room. You’re on a website called Way Too Indie, where you’re reading a review of the newest album by Kelis, the artist whose 2003 hit “Milkshake” was a major label product that absolutely dominated commercial radio. Yes, this is the same Kelis responsible for “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard/and they’re like, ‘It’s better than yours.'” It’s easy to think, then, that Kelis is exactly the opposite of indie, and that her music is simply commercial, for-profit, mainstream fodder. But take a moment to listen to “Milkshake” again: putting aside the song’s incredibly cheesy lyrics and borderline uncomfortable music video, the song’s production (provided by the Neptunes) is sleek and sensual, and Kelis’ raspy voice provides a delicate tension without which the song might simply fall flat.
More than ten years after “Milkshake”, a critically underrated, lavish R&B gem, Kelis is the mother of a nearly five-year-old son, and is divorced from rap legend Nas for just about four years (their marriage lasted for roughly the same amount of time). She’s no longer that 24-year-old employing cheap sexual euphemisms for radio play; she’s matured tremendously since then, and has gained greater artistic control of her music. Her sixth album Food serves as evidence of Kelis’ newly asserted dominance over her art: no longer a major label signee, she takes advantage of her newfound flexibility tremendously. Rather than working with a whole handful of writers as she did on albums like Flesh Tone, Kelis Was Here, and Tasty, Kelis is instead paired with only two cohorts due to the comparatively small budget of her new label, the consistently excellent, primarily electronic label Ninja Tune. Producer Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio and brass arranger Todd Simon co-write every song on this album, leading to Kelis’ jazziest, smokiest, most sensual, exciting, and certainly most consistent album yet.
Food embraces orchestral arrangements and lounge-inspired sensuality without fully leaving the realm of pop music. This trait can be traced directly back to Sitek and Simon: Sitek’s own TV on the Radio pushes the boundaries of traditional rock song structures while embracing brass contributions (best exemplified by their song “Dancing Choose”), and Simon is responsible for some of the steamy, erotic arrangements on Rhye’s 2013 debut, Woman. Their contributions to Kelis’ sound manifests constantly on Food: after the smoky, reflective aura of “Floyd” is gradually introduced, horns amplify its starry-eyed nature, resulting in an afflicting track that sounds remarkably like the slower jazz standards. Likewise, the searing, charged “Change” intensifies with frantic brass placements just as its first chorus strikes. “Jerk Ribs”, Food‘s first single, arguably benefits the most from its production: the brass placed at the song’s periphery imbues the song with a glowing, triumphant quality that makes it an unforgettable moment.
“Jerk Ribs” is also special for its lyrics, which chronicle Kelis’ relationship with music. The words on this track tell the tale of Kelis’ growing up and gradually becoming more inseparable from the sounds around her. “I was the girl/my daddy was my world/he played the notes and keys/he said to look for melody in everything”, Kelis reflects, later confirming that this passion hasn’t left: “The bass vibrates/right through me/the brass, the strings, I love everything.” Although it’s not unreasonable to view the latter lines as musically breaking the fourth wall, if you will, since they so perfectly reference the sound advanced throughout Food, more interesting is how personal these lyrics are. In fact, personal poetry pervades Food: despite some of the songs’ titles explicitly naming certain foods (“Jerk Ribs”, “Cobbler”, “Biscuits ‘n’ Gravy”), the subject matter is universally love-based, and close to the heart.
Running the gamut from lovelorn to exuberantly infatuated, Food‘s lyrics nicely suit the fiery brass behind them. “There will never be/another/day for us to be/lovers/I’ll follow in your lead/forever/and we’ll forever be/together”, goes the chorus to “Forever Be,” and these words, despite their inherent simplicity, astutely match the pulsating modern take on lounge music that backs them. “Breakfast” and “Hooch” blaze this same path, their ecstatically-in-love lyrics lining up cleverly with their brassy, passionate instrumentation. “Floyd” and “Runner”, however, explore the more upsetting side of love, but the sounds and topics of these tunes still mesh wonderfully. The former track is Food‘s most explicitly sultry number, a melancholy list of desires best summarized by Kelis’ simple wish in its chorus: “I want to be blown away.” “Runner” is equally aching, its brass spikes accentuating just how badly Kelis wants to return to a former lover.
Of course, the topic of love is in no way novel territory for any genre of music, but Kelis’ raspy yet confident vocal delivery almost always ensures that she conveys her feelings strongly and genuinely. Second single and reunion story “Rumble” displays Kelis calmly meditating on her return to an ex-lover, until her voice explodes forward towards the end of the second verse, breaking into fractured, splintered pleading for her man to “stay the night, baby.” Sure, some listeners will be instantly turned off by just how far she pushes her voice, but the limits to which she extends provide the song with a grand spark. She successfully does this during the chorus of the surprising, Western-inspired “Fish Fry” as well, but steps a bit too far outside her comfort zone on final track “Dreamer”, the huskiness of her voice feeling unstable and unbalanced rather than admirably delicate and affecting.
No, Food isn’t perfect, as “Dreamer” demonstrates: for example, the penultimate “Biscuits ‘n’ Gravy” is just a tad too dry to strike as poignantly as the majority of Food, although it’s still a great track. Really, almost every track on Food is enjoyable, but a select few have some irksome facets. The call and response sections of “Fish Fry” and “Cobbler” feel juvenile and forced, although the latter track has one of the most thrilling choruses present. The oddly dull cover of Labi Siffre’s “Bless The Telephone”, placed just after the album’s midpoint, is probably the album’s lowest point, as it completely lacks the remaining tunes’ invigorating nature despite being un-traditionally pretty. Otherwise, Food‘s consistency and novel (well, for Kelis) approach are commendable, although the album’s fifty minute runtime, over thirteen songs, is a bit excessive.
It’s great that Kelis is finally getting her chance to shine after so long. In 2003, when “Milkshake” emerged and opinions divided like 1860s America, it was unclear whether Kelis would just be a “one hit wonder”, to use one of the more reductive musical terms out there, or if her talent would last with time. With each album since then, a bit more of what makes Kelis special has emerged; Food is the first instance of it being on full display. Although the contributions of Dave Sitek and Todd Simon absolutely cannot be understated, this album is a landmark for Kelis, who’s finally crafted the kinds of songs that she’s always seemed capable of. Although her new label may have less money, it’s certainly given her more artistic freedom, helping to sculpt Food into the great piece that it is. This is her very first album released independently, and the buoyancy of Food‘s most jubilant tracks indicate that she’s probably not leaving anytime soon, suggesting that this is only the first chapter in a long, thrilling neo-soul saga. It’ll be exciting to see how the next chapter unfolds, but, for now, what’s been unveiled so far is fully satisfying and enchanting.