Since Tasty, Kelis’ breakthrough album which led to “Milkshake” taking the world by storm, was released in 2003, it’s fair to say that she was unable to replicate that success. Both 2006’s Kelis Was Here and 2010’s Flesh Tone were quite forgettable, save for the latter’s “Acapella”, which I still think is one of the best songs she has released to date. She had ditched the sexy, floor-filling R&B vibes of her first three records (which were helped out by late ‘90s/early ‘00s kings of production, The Neptunes), signed to a poor record deal and then, upon leaving, committed the musical cardinal sin (unless you’re Sia) of working with David Guetta and his EDM crew. Flesh Tone managed to make at least some of an impact because, here, she was behind the wheel and it was very much Kelis-doing-EDM rather than some EDM with a bit of Kelis on it; trying something different and, for the most part, doing a decent job at it, but it just didn’t capture most of what made Kelis great. Since then, she’s gone through a bit of a change.
1999’s “Caught Out There”, Kelis’ first major solo single coming off the back of her collaboration with Ol’ Dirty Bastard, painted her as the Alanis Morisette of R&B. Fuelled by anger and heartbreak it was the perfect anthem for scorned women everywhere; “You Oughta Know” for those who prefer a thumping beat to some grungy guitars. The Kelis we see in 2014 is unrecognisable compared to Kaleidoscope Kelis. She’s matured and no longer lets anger and pain rule her heart.
As well as maturing, she’s done a bit of a Paul Newman and ventured into food. Having enrolled in the Cordon Bleu culinary school in 2006, she’s since gone on to get her own cookery show in the States, launched her own range of products (mainly sauces a la Loyd Grossman, seeing as she trained as a saucier), and even took her food truck to SXSW to cook her recipes for punters. It’s a bit of an unusual diversion but it’s one that has heavily inspired this sixth album, aptly titled Food.
It seems a cliché but the world of music and the world of food go together surprisingly well.The ideas of mixing flavours to discover the best combination and the utter precision that is required to create something good is present in both. Working with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek, Kelis has managed to re-discover what makes her so special and craft whole dishes around that; dishes that are both playful and comforting with a real kick to them.
Album opener, and the first single from the album, “Jerk Ribs” acts as a nice entrée, showing you what’s to come and whether or not it’ll be to your tastes, though it’s hard to not be enraptured by the track. Horns blast out among the luscious string section as Kelis’ husky vocals lead the way. It’s a real tasty soul track and the perfect introduction to what Food is all about; namely a bunch of songs named after food and packed with soul and hands-to-your-chest, face-to-the-sky belters. From here it moves effortlessly into new worlds as though you’re navigating a tasting platter.
The sultry “Floyd” snakes and swoons as though navigating a smoky jazz club; a smooth slow jam that sees Kelis’ hoarse but no less sexy vocals croon “I want to be blown away”. “Hooch” really feels like a track that belongs on something put out by Ninja Tune. Kelis’ move to the label normally filled with leftfield electronic artists seemed like strange but it was a decision that had people, myself included, really intrigued to see what it would bring. “Hooch” has a really jazzy Bonobo feel to the brass mixed with Nile Rodgers-esque disco guitar work and even more swooning from Kelis. “Cobbler” has a more afrobeat vibe to it, with the percussion of claps and, what could quite easily be, the sound of pots and pans. But, like much of the album, it sits more on the mellow side of the scale. This isn’t the balls-to-the-wall club anthems of Flesh Tone, instead sounding more at home sat out in the last hours of the sun with a nice cold cocktail as the sky begins to be painted a deep orange and red. It’s more sunset street party, than sweaty basement club. “Friday Fish Fry” is, perhaps, the only track to really get a dancefloor going, with a great little call and response bit thrown in the middle.
Things take an interesting turn with a gorgeous cover of Labi Siffre’s “Bless The Telephone” which is filled with warmth, consisting of mainly an acoustic guitar and Kelis’ vocals. It’s impossible to not mention her vocals at all when a song like “Bless The Telephone” comes along. It’s that smoky feeling to it that just drips with sensuality that makes it so appealing. It proves a really nice break from the brass heavy rest of the album, taking things down to an even mellower notch.
Food is not an album that’s really going to produce the next “Milkshake” or “Acapella” but it is a fantastically immediate record that is captivating every time you return. Like Janelle Monae, Kelis dips into the retro vibes without falling into the trap of nostalgia. It’s all ideas we’ve heard before but it still feels distinctly ‘now’. As we glide from sexy brass, to funky African vibes, to a toned down Simon & Garfunkel-esque sound, it really does feel like we’re going through a full meal. Once you leave Food, you’re not going to feel stuffed, rather extremely content. It wants you to try different things but it isn’t in the habit of shoving too much onto your plate. Instead what you get is a set of well-crafted dishes that use different ideas like spices to really bring out the best in Kelis. And I’ve pretty much run out of food based metaphors so I should stop now. Check please.