We were first introduced to Ms. Kelis Rogers some 15 years ago when the spunky, funky songstress and her neon-colored hair were screaming on tracks and TV screens while running around with the Star Trak crew. And, well, a lot has happened since. Four albums (five if you count the international-only release Wanderland), a marriage to/divorce from rapper Nas, numerous style and hair changes, a bouncing baby boy and a “Milkshake” that just won’t quit later, the songstress strides back onto the scene with her sixth and latest album, FOOD. Though this is the songstress’ return to the R&B/soul side of things (pairing with TV On The Radio‘s Dave Sitek on the production tip), this is the first time that she’s tried out this particular recipe. So the question is, will this meal make you hungry for more or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
Fittingly, Kelis starts of the 13-course affair with “Breakfast,” a sweet track about finding that first rush of love with someone. Introduced by her son, Knight, the song also introduces the soulful direction of the album, with a sound reminiscent of 1960s funk and soul without sounding like the retro-soul movement of the last decade. This sentiment is carried on through “Jerk Ribs,” an Afrobeat-influenced stomper where the brass gets turned up to 11 during the chorus as Kelis sings about the way the music makes her feel. She softens her edges a bit for the poppier “Forever Be,” which is led by piano and orchestral strings, layering them with soft horns for a soaring, inspirational chorus.
While the overall style is a new one for Kelis, the first surprise of the album comes from the unexpected “Floyd.” A resigned, anti-love ballad of sorts, it finds the singer lamenting about the trials and tribulations of dating. While the subject seems fairly simply, Kelis provides a bit of emotional weight as she makes her case plain before sighing “I want to be blown away” on the day-dreamy chorus. “Runnin’,” on the other hand, finds the singer ditching the trappings of her life for something a bit simpler over a smoky, simmering groove that will put you in the mind of a Dusty Springfield song. Doubling down on the flower-child era soul of “Runnin’,” “Hooch” adds a bit of blues and bourbon to the mix as Kelis woozily sings the verses and lets a masterfully arranged rhythm and horn section handle the chorus work, with the backing singers’ lightly breathed “ohs” and “ahs” punctuating the riffs.
Saucy Latin funk gets tried on for the album’s second big surprise, “Cobbler.” Over a bubbling, brown sugar groove filled with congas and a syncopated rhythm, Kelis sings about love that’s got her feeling like a holiday. But the real eye-opener comes near the end, when Kelis, known for her raspy, lower-pitched sound, aims for the rafters and hits high-pitched, whistle register notes that we didn’t know she had in her. After so much heat, she cools things down with her cover of Labi Siffre‘s “Bless the Telephone.” Posed as a duet, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe echos her vocals throughout the acoustic track, creating a lulling, drifting effect that’s a welcome calm at the center of the album.
The heat’s back on for “Friday Fish Fry,” though, as she spices things up with this sassy number. “Give me what I want/Give me what I need,” she wails on the chorus. Her signature rasp serves her well here as the spaghetti western-like guitars and southern-fried horns provide ample accompaniment to her forthright plea. “Change” taps into her musical theater background (the track she studied while attending the famed Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in NYC). It’s a track that sounds like it could’ve been included in a ’60s stage musical or, better yet, as the theme for a classic era James Bond film. Second single “Rumble,” in my opinion the album’s only misstep, is a serviceable Brit-Soul track, but Kelis’ slightly offbeat delivery and defiant yet acquiescent lyrics don’t fully gibe, giving the song a slight disconnect.
Luckily, the songstress recovers quickly with “Biscuits ‘N Gravy.” The introspective track starts with just Kelis, a simple piano melody and the occasional tap of a hi-hat. It soon blossoms, though, as she further contemplates the direction of her life, eventually becoming a horn-drenched foot stomper. This is also where Kelis incorporates lyrics from “Been Given A Morning,” a previously leaked, Basshitter-produced track that, unfortunately, didn’t make its way onto FOOD‘s tracklist outside of this lyrical shout-out. The album ends with the spacy soul of “Dreamer,” a song that would’ve felt right at home with songs by The Rotary Connection or even Jefferson Airplane.
While FOOD certainly won’t be everybody’s meal of choice, especially of those with a hankering for the space-age R&B of Kelis’ early years or those looking for more of the EDM diva she transformed herself into for her last album, Flesh Tone, it is a welcome evolution for the once pink-haired chick floating over extraterrestrial Neptunes production. Now a mother and a fully-grown woman, Kelis is more seasoned and it’s evident in her music. FOOD shows that Kelis has found a center that wasn’t always present in her music before, and that center has given this album a sense of freedom, allowing her to explore musical facets that many wouldn’t expect to come from her direction. Hearty and heartfelt, FOOD is a musical meal that you won’t want to miss and that you’re most definitely sure to come back for again and again.