Understanding Kelis hasn’t always been this easy. Her expansive discography has carved out many diverse alter egos, from the sugarcoated pop sensation of Tasty to the club queen of Flesh Tone. The ambition behind it all is impressive, but it has kept fans from pinning down an exact understanding of her identity. With Food, she gives her guests a taste of who she is as a cook, musician, and mother, as she shares her wisdom on the art of satisfaction. The singer has crafted a formula that blends her personal passions and struggles into a blast of contagious, natural energy, something that keeps customers coming back for more.
On her new cooking show, Saucy & Sweet, Kelis welcomes the question of who she is and reflects on her goal to synthesize her identities onto one disc. Feeding someone is one of life’s greatest gifts, fueling and invigorating someone with newfound energy. At SXSW this year, she did just that out of a food truck for free, convincing festival-goers that she’s capable of more than just a milkshake.
Last year, the idea of “big band R&B” was reintroduced to pop by Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, which stressed live instrumentation and experimenting without electronic production. Kelis and her producer, David Sitek, also leave it all to the stage and do away with most additional detailing, such as vocal stacking and dominant synthesizers. Sitek widens the palette further with stunning symphonic arrangements, best exemplified on the tranquil conclusion of “Floyd”. Even though The Neptunes might hold the title for producing some of her best tracks, Sitek’s approach provides a wonderfully imaginative and fun variety of sounds.
These acoustic songs separate Food from the majority of Kelis’s discography. Her chart-topping hits “Milkshake” and “Bossy”, familiar to most radio listeners, are two songs that brim with pride and sexiness. Their electronic dominance is meant for dance floors, an instant gratification that on its own would make her an occasional Top 40 charter, and nothing more. On “Jerk Ribs”, Food‘s first single, Kelis is not attempting to prove anything. Instead, she’s confidently singing for joy and encouraging her listeners to experience it for themselves. Sitek fills each molecule with percussion clanked from kitchen pots and pans and a groovy bass line that effortlessly situates the listener next to the singer. Bringing her kitchen into the real world allows Kelis to effortlessly strut through the sunshine and glow with satisfaction.
That wasn’t easy for her, though. After a messy divorce with rapper Nas, Kelis found looking on the bright side of things to be difficult, especially after her ex packed the first retaliating punch. Nas’s 2012 effort, Life Is Good, features a similar ambition in reassessing his life post-breakup, but “Bye Baby” takes a step back and targets his ex-wife as an “angry black woman” who refused to continue their healthy and prospering relationship. Until now, we’ve only heard one side of the story, and “Hooch” provides a response from Kelis’s side, full of strength, confidence, and maturity.
Her first words, ironically enough, aren’t even hers: “Like your daddy said, the world is yours, so let it flow naturally.” The reference to Illmatic and “The World Is Yours” is justified, showing that her ex-husband influenced her music but also suggesting that he take his own advice. Kelis lyrically reveals his negligence: Their divorce was filed only weeks before their child’s birth (“baby joys, the one thing we didn’t have”), and Nas was severed from contributing to their child’s development. In the end, she’s okay with that. She encourages her son to look alive and be himself, as if she were buffing his shoulder pads before he went back onto the field. In “Breakfast”, again, she sings, “So much of who we are is from who taught us how to love.” Reveling in bad memories would only do worse for both of them.
As much as Kelis is able to keep her cool, Food stands as a successfully executed breakup album. Even though it wasn’t easy, she is able to cherish both the good times and how she’s grown. Similar to her ex’s search for the truest type on “Bye Baby”, she yearns for a glass of “ice cold water” in “Fish Fry Friday”, something that continuously refreshes and revitalizes her spirit. Considering that, Food may be the only thing she really needs.
Since her last album, 2010’s Flesh Tone, Kelis has grown into a stronger, multifaceted artist. While there are still moments where her many commitments result in under-developed tracks (like the lackluster Labi Siffre cover, “Bless the Telephone”, or the uncomfortable vocal sample of “Forever Be”), she takes a risk and succeeds. In the continuously developing R&B scene, Kelis can join fellow veterans like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who use their life experience as a source for wisdom and discovery. Food is only the beginning.
Essential Tracks: “Jerk Ribs”, “Hooch”, and “Floyd”