50:05 min • Ninja Tunes • April 18, 2014
John Preston reviews
Kelis is an incredible singles artist. I’m not going to begin listing them all but if a reminder is needed then just play 2008’s greatest hits compilation – barley a mis-step over a near 15 year career. Seen often as an innovator, Kelis is certainly an artist that the world of R&B and Hip Hop cannot seem to contain. Hailed as the next big thing upon her arrival in 1999 with the brittle and bawling ‘Caught Out There’ she was the original Pharrell/ The Neptunes collaborator. Falling down on the spare and only occasionally fully realised second album Wanderland, she rose again in spectacular fashion with the still ubiquitous ‘Milkshake’ from 2003’s Tasty album. She conquered EDM just before it reached saturation point with the bold but uneven Flesh Tone and although this contained the mammoth ‘Acapella’, it just continued the fate of the star’s underwhelming if ambitious run of full length recordings. 2014’s incarnation may however see a reversal for Kelis; possibly lacking that one massive hit single, Food might instead be her most cohesive and consistently engaging long playing collection to date.
‘Are you hungry? My mum made food’, so asks Kelis 5-year old little boy Knight on album opener ‘Breakfast’. Using her son’s voice to introduce the album neatly sets up the albums themes; a new outlook as a single mother and a woman who has recently graduated as a chef, nurturing on a more organic and sensual level and looking for quality fulfilment. Produced by David Sitek and incorporating a live bank, assertive backing singers and strings whilst referencing an era that begins in the late sixties and moves through to the mid-seventies. Genre switch-ups of this kind are not uncommon career decisions, but Kelis has a charismatic and unusual delivery and an assertiveness that can carry such a radical change. The first three songs, which includes the brassy and euphoric single ‘Jerk Ribs’, are very pleasant if predictable excursions into this unknown territory but it’s only on the fourth track ‘Floyd’, that the deal is secured. Delicious baritone horns, a gorgeous and dreamy vocal and a wonderfully restrained, seductive 1 minute fade out set the scene for the albums sometime raucous and constantly surprising middle section.
The last quarter of Food is the most satisfying and diverse. ‘Bless the Telephone’- originally by UK artist Labi Siffre, is a warm and melodic, acoustic guitar duet with Sal Masakela. Tender and beautifully sung it’s the shortest song but delivers one of the biggest successes. ‘Rumble’ is a simple, piano riffed and rolling mid-tempo number which, on a rare moment here, sees Kelis address problems with an ex-partner in the no-nonsense and honestly amusing style that she has become famous for. Her vocals sounding thick and hoarse on the chorus, the perfect combination given the aggrieved but still conflicted demand that he return her keys. ‘Change’ is Food‘s star, it captures everything that is essentially Kelis and filters it through the dynamics and soundscapes that have been chosen as the sonic and stylist template for the album. One of only a couple of songs to do so, ‘Change’ also has influences that don’t predate Kelis’ age; it has a noir trip-hop quality which has been set against a sparkling and angry early seventies Blaxplotitation soundtrack. It could be covered by Adele or Shirley Bassey but suits Kelis perfectly.
Many new Millennial R&B starts did not survive their first decade but Food is Kelis’ sixth album and is as surprising and spirited as her first. Whilst her 1999 debut Kaleidoscope sounded like the future, this is a look back on her musical heritage which thankfully steers clear of pastiche or cosines. More than anything, Kelis feels as though she is fully responsible for guiding her own path here and that for better or worse the music she is producing now is made with heart and conviction. An idiosyncratic and unpredictable performer who has successfully refused to be pigeonholed from the get go, she still encourages excitement on each new release and attracts genuine respect based her resilience and decision not to become the cliche that some of her contemporaries have found difficult to resist. Kelis is one of pop and R&B music’s most interesting and brave characters and Food is her most satisfying album yet; indulge.