Organic growth: Kelis turns to older styles on her tasty new album

Kelis, best known previously for her pounding beats, goes back to 1970s soul to great effect on her new release.

Kelis performing in Austin, Texas, last month, part of the city’s huge annual South by Southwest festival. The singer has also embraced 1970s styles in her music. Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images / April 2014
Powered by automated translation

Shape-shifting is rarely a subtle art in pop music. Reinventions tend to be heavy-duty projects, accompanied by blazing publicity and creaking signifiers, thickly laid on in a bid to erase any trace of previous personae. Often, the appeal is less how well they convince and more the disbelief-suspending awe elicited by the chutzpah.

Kelis Rogers's sixth album is ostensibly about as total an artistic volte-face as you'll find in pop. 2010's Flesh Tone found her conveying the euphoria of motherhood through the medium of pounding, club-ready house beats, itself a radical departure for an artist who emerged as the face and voice of the Neptunes' turn-of-the-century reinvention of R&B. Three years on, she offers up Food, a lovingly crafted homage to classic 1970s soul: organic where she's previously been electronic, content in its comforting domesticity rather than seeking to provoke or energise.

But if Kelis has rarely received the credit she deserves for her mastery of disparate forms, this is perhaps because she has a rare knack for making her left turns seem like natural next steps rather than new beginnings: she inhabits new costumes fully, but never sheds her skin. Similarly, it’s also startling to realise that Kelis is now a veteran artist in the game of 15 years’ standing.

The ferocious, bolshy 19-year-old with the kaleidoscopic afro who burst nails-first on to the scene in 1999 as she excoriated her ex on Caught Out There and the 34-year-old earth mother now blissfully ensconced in her kitchen are still recognisable in each other – maybe because there was always something of the righteous matriarch in the older-than-her-years teenage Kelis in the first place, maybe because she’s approached the vexed question of ageing in the pop industry by, until now, largely ignoring it.

Food’s title is both misleading and appropriate: despite the presence of songs called Jerk Ribs, Cobbler and Biscuits n’ Gravy, it is less an explicit theme and more a background presence to the whole project. According to Kelis, those songs acquired their names at random, as her engineer saved the sound files as aides memoires. From a listener’s perspective, the gap between title and subject matter necessitates digging slightly deeper to unwrap the song. It’s a process that pays off, and one suspects that Kelis deliberately engineered it: both Jerk Ribs and Biscuits n’ Gravy were originally leaked online under titles lifted from their actual hooks, a decision that was clearly rescinded at a later point.

Kelis, who trained as a Cordon Bleu chef during the late 2000s following a period of disillusionment with the music industry, has gone out of her way to tie the album to her culinary skills, promoting it at festivals and launch parties accompanied by her own hand-cooked menu (jerk ribs; duck confit sliders with ginger sesame glaze; shredded beef sliders with cherry BBQ sauce and coleslaw: it sounded as tantalisingly delicious as her music). Her own cooking TV show, Saucy & Sweet, also debuted in February. So the album’s overall vibe of comforting soul food in aural form may well be one that Kelis has imparted by forceful association – but on the other hand, the blend of familiarity in its classic soul moves, reminiscent of greats from Stevie Wonder to Minnie Riperton, and the depth and richness of the arrangements elicit Pavlovian reactions of their own.

On Jerk Ribs, a sinuous bassline and ebullient horns evoke weaving through the crowds and traffic of urban summers so precisely that you can almost smell the fumes; a horn section bursts into the swooning strings of Forever Be like a firework display. Kelis moves effortlessly between languid patience (Floyd, Dreamer), itchily percussive spontaneity (Cobbler) and sultry Southern poses (Friday Fish Fry, with its playful, touch-don’t-touch call-and-response climax: “Rock back and forth with me / No, not too close to me”).

Every track contains a perfectly timed twist in the arrangement: Kelis, the producer Dave Sitek (who has previously helped create similarly coherent sonic worlds for Santigold and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and the gifted 11-piece band with whom Food was recorded demonstrate an instinctive and deeply satisfying relationship throughout. A tinge of mariachi spices up Change, while Jerk Ribs nods towards Afrobeat.

Indeed, so sumptuous are the arrangements that at times they threaten to overshadow the songs. This isn’t a flaw as such – it would be like complaining that the music sounded too good – but Kelis’s own presence on Food is certainly more relaxed than assertive: something that pays off in terms of aural candy, but less when it comes to selling her narratives. But this, too, seems part of her intent to make the listener work beyond the immediate thrills: as befits the first album of her career on which Kelis seems invested in her own maturity, Food is in it for the long haul.

Digging into its narratives pays off. Kelis is at her most reflective, largely concerned with nostalgia and contentment. She reminisces about her Harlem childhood and her father’s musical advice on Jerk Ribs, a song that’s as concise a pitted biography as you’ll find in pop; Runner takes her world-weary sighs of struggles and almost imperceptibly builds them into something of real grandeur. And if those songs convey how the current incarnation of Kelis was made, they just mean that the purring, loved-up bliss of Floyd and Cobbler feels that much more earned. Typically, the former is expressed in quintessential Kelis insouciance: “Show I’m self-sufficient, blah blah, independent? Truthfully, I got some space, I want that man to fill it,” she all but rolls her eyes. Not that she’s gone overly soft, either: “I’m not no secretary, I’m nobody’s maître d’,” she snaps on Rumble.

Despite the wholesale stylistic shift, Food – like each of its predecessors – feels like a natural fit into Kelis’s discography. Breakfast, the album’s second track – it feels oddly like a perfect opener, as though its position was mistakenly swapped with Jerk Ribs at some point – is a paean to motherhood whose sentiments pick up where Flesh Tone left off. But the parallels with an earlier album, 2003’s Tasty, are more striking. The food and drink references – Tasty featured Milkshake and Sugar Honey Iced Tea – seem relevant; a spoken sample of Kelis’s son offering us, the listeners, his mother’s cooking to open Breakfast echoes the final spoken words of Tasty: “OK: now, swallow.” Food’s casual, relaxed air is, however, most reminiscent of one of the more underrated stretches of Tasty – an album that may have spawned Kelis’s most commercially successful singles, but also contained a transcendent final stretch. Its closing cuts, Stick Up and Marathon, were lovingly layered mini-epics of longing and seduction. Food often hits the same spot from the opposite direction: “I used to say I’d run, but for this I know I’ll stay,” Kelis declares of love; or, more succinctly on Floyd, “I want to be blown away.” Maturity for this seductress is permitting herself to be seduced.

Not that anyone should get used to it: Kelis is defined by her artistic restlessness. While her innate musicianship ensures that her ability to deliver a style is never half-baked, Food’s penultimate cut serves as a warning not to get overly attached. Biscuits n’ Gravy starts off as a rare moment of sparse breathing space in an album that’s otherwise replete with sonic detail, Kelis reaffirming her questing instincts over a circular piano motif. Its surge into full-bodied majesty is a wonder of build-and-release (even on this retro affair, Kelis is able to employ the tricks she learnt from her club phase), and it’s the mantra she repeats at the song’s climax that seems to point the way forward: “By this time tomorrow I’ll be brand new … If you catch me tomorrow I’ll be renewed.”

Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.