Kelis Has Gone All Fourth Of July On Us Mofos
Kelis is back to music after several years in the celebrity spotlight for all the wrong reasons (an unfortunate marriage, a reality show [which was apparently so boring it never aired], some culinary training, a baby [Knight], a divorce, a massive alimony, and a bitter spat with PETA). Her new album, Flesh Tone, is a slight change in direction, a taut collection of dancefloor fodder. But the music, itself, has always been just the cherry on Kelis’ milkshake.
I first heard Kelis by way of a joke. I was dating someone with self-admittedly bad taste in music (Aerosmith) who compiled a mixtape of pop provocations and opera. I don’t recall much of what was on it, but one tune made a startling impression. “Caught Out There” was a fascinating and delightful shock. You’ve probably heard the song; it’s clunky production sound and rather average opening verse are brilliantly interrupted when the is-this-for-real chorus hurls a threatening megaphone chant “I HATE YOU SO MUCH RIGHT NOW” and the singer releases a baleful “AAAAHHH!” I went back to then-boyfriend and marveled, WHAT IS THIS SONG? WHO IS THIS KELIS (and, for the longest time, like most, I mispronounced it kel-is instead of the correct Kah-leece). “Oh, you liked that?” his brow furrowed. “That was a joke.”
This was no joke, however. This tape got burnt out, on repeat. In an era of The Cranberries and the bratty tantrums of Fiona Apple, Kelis’ sneering scream tore through the tepid Lilith fair garbage. ‘Cause Kelis had agency. And she’s always relied on her image to do most of that work. At the time, she rocked this huge left-field mane of curly hair died like one of those rainbow-flavored snow cones. “Caught Out There” has a spoken backing track so non-musical, inarticulate and matter-of-fact against these canned-sounding beats (“You know what I’m sayin, yo…this is how it goes yo… pfsh… damn"). Her production crew, The Neptunes, would soon bring this intentionally cheap sound to the loftier ranks of Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Snoop Dogg, but for Kelis, the computerized rhythm seemed to epitomize her homespun attitude. Sound and image congealed for this message of insouciant self invention, like the songstress just traipsed into a room, got this shit off her chest in time to catch the newest summer blockbuster, afterwards. The song was pure swagger – it seemed to transcend the effort that goes into most careers (“uh-uh…bitch… yeah, you been caught…”). Incapable of finding the words to express her feelings (or disinterested?), “Caught Out There” was carried by just screaming. That scream conveyed what waited in the wings of countless ‘my man’s been stepping out’ songs: bald rage. It was the sound of someone coming apart at the seams but maintaining control. She cocks a gun in the song (“I got somethin’ for y’all”) but by then we know she’ll be using her hands.
I wouldn’t encounter Kelis again until a friend picked me up from the airport and drove me back to my Los Angeles apartment, many years later. A similarly dirty, repetitive beat erupted on her radio. A too-catchy chorus spun by an eager, incredulous voice leapt through the speakers and grabbed me by the collar (do you know that sensation?) She sang me a lyric that was so obviously not about the milkshake from which the song took its title. “What on earth is this!?” I gasped, wide-eyed at my friend. She told me it was this hot new starlet, Kel-is.
“Milkshake” reached a level of ubiquity that “Caught Out There” never did. While “Caught Out There” was quite successful on R&B radio and circulated on cassette singles or mixtapes like mine, no one was prepared for the domination of “Milkshake.” You couldn’t escape it. It’s there in Mean Girls, at the mall, lurking behind you on one of those ceiling speakers they pipe in at the DMV, with adverts, cross-promotional campaigns; hell, I used the song for a 6-month stretch as my answering machine greeting (which brought Kelis to a new level of recognition and shiny commercial viability, ha). She wore slinky futurist red vinyl clothing and opened for Britney Spears.
Sparkling and juicy, the song was right, we did want it. Like “Caught Out There,” every sonic burst of the tune, from the gyrating funk synth to the finger cymbal that “tings” like a cartoon wink every couple of seconds, added up to this effortless in-joke of pop provocation. It all seemed so obvious (not that there’s any indication of what this milkshake actually pays reference to – it didn’t matter!). It was playground chant-y enough for kids to not get it and raunchy enough for gay clubs to continue to blare it at the 3 o’clock hour to this day.
But as with the last album campaign, the label and Kelis seemed to lazily go through the motions, phoning in the three remaining singles (“Trick Me,” “Millionaire” featuring Andre 3000 and “In Public” feat. Nas).
I’ve tried in the past to justify the mediocrity that lurks at the core of Kelis’ long playing endeavors with little success. Every time I bring up Tasty, the crop from which spurted “Milkshake,” the response is always, "but the ALBUM…!" The long-playing tracks on a Kelis album resound with the frequency of a songstress deigning to spin a yarn past the lead single. The blasé attitude Kelis brings to album cuts only heightens her eccentric persona. She doesn’t give a shit. She’s bossy. Then she’s bored. Songs like "Handful," "Sugar Honey Iced Tea" and "Roller Rink" are the sonic equivalent of one of those lugubrious shrugs that bolster the lead video for her next endeavor. The past-tense title of her last album would say it all, Kelis Was Here (2006); but she’s moved on. Kelis is at her best when she’s already dropped her lead single and not fussing too much. Instead, she’s running amok at legitimately fascinating social affairs with a schooled panache: birthday parties with Bjork, rolling the Grammys red carpet in gold hotpants, a t-shirt that reads “Nigger” and a shit-eating grin.
These sorts of endeavors would occupy the next three years of her life (long waits are customary in Kelisland, as I would recently relearn at a secret gig where dear Kelis treated us to a 3-hour wait for her half-hour set). Technology changed and I became familiar with her back catalogue and side projects (which included a whole album, Wanderland, held at bay from the American market). Then, one day, a file appeared on Limewire. “Kelis_bossy.mp3” signaled a huge departure from “Milkshake.” For one, I sought it out. Unlike my prior experiences, this song didn’t startle me into Kelis awareness. I knew what I was looking for. But musically, also; instead of a futuristic pop funk slither, the tune was pure Urban radio. A slow-burner, “Bossy” has various sections, but is melodically ruled by this tinkling piano theme and booming bass. It seemed too slow for the clubs and would not make sense until it came booming at me from low-riding cars that cruised downtown Los Angeles where I worked on the weekends. I remember buying the CD single of “Milkshake” after hearing it on the radio, but I don’t think they ever pressed a CD of this one. “Bossy” seemed intended for dissemination on the internet; then, as the public grew accustomed to this new "icy-cold" R&B sound that Kelis was sporting, the tune crept into itunes playlists. It had a six-month lag between leak and release and spawned Kelis’ most respected remix, too. Pitchfork Media just couldn’t stop singing the praises of the Alan Braxe and Fred Falke interpretation, which reinvisioned the song as an 80s synth-surger acceptable to and "over-rated by mighty whitey" (as Neil Kulkarni scathingly wrote). To date, “Bossy” has sold more ringtones than songs.
Kelis established a reputation with her couplet of prior hits and “Bossy” built around that infamy. With the exception of her exceptional “Circus,” it’s the most meta of Kelis’ songs: “I’m the first girl to scream on a track [“Caught Out There”]… that’s right I brought all the boys to the yard [“Milkshake”] / and that’s right, I’m the one that’s tattooed on his arm [“Nas’”]… I’m the bitch y’all love to hate / I’m the chick who’s raised the stakes… I’m back with an 808 [the drum sequencer used to lay the track].” In the video, Kelis cuts off the large mane she had maintained as a signature look throughout her career. “you don’t have to love me / you don’t even have to like me / but you will respect me.” Her transformation is immediate, and Kelis shows off her new ‘do in a swimsuit, teetering in a dancey swagger. It’s all business (she’s bossy, after all) and apart from the unfortunate necessity of bodily objectification, Kelis proves that she’s in control. Hyperbole is on high here and Kelis sends up bling flashing in contemporary R&B videos with her chanted bridge: “Diamonds on my neck, d-diamonds on my grill.” Rubbing her hands over the dozen plus necklaces, she opens her mouth and runs her tongue over a diamond studded tooth guard.
Another three years would pass by, strewn with internet newfeeds of a messy marriage, a dalliance in culinary school, a baby and several failed attempts at reality programming. All of this fueled tabloid attention to Kelis, who was dropped by her label after poor album sales for Kelis Was Here. Apparently she shopped around two albums, one pop, written with a Robbie Williams hitmaker and one experimental dance, written with Gnarls Barkley’s Cee-lo Green. But back up she shot one random October morning when her new tune “Acapella” was issued to scads of pop music blogs like Popjustice. Kelis put the tune on her site (alongside snaps of her new look: a grey mullet) explaining that it was from a forthcoming dance record. And so it sounded, with producer David Guetta supplying some remix-sounding, crunching beats. The whole tune has a hyper-conscious Donna Summer ring to it. Four months transpired between this hype event and the song’s "release" as a digital single. The video would not emerge for another month. This article is timed to drop with the album, some 9 months after the initial post.
Kelis fits well with my brand of fanaticism since she doesn’t appear to pour that much effort into her work, itself. My participation in this fame scheme seems to round it out. Because of her distinct character, she isn’t a figure of projection like other pop songstrels, but an attitudinal compatriot. We’re in it together (that’s the inclusive joy of a hoodwink). For buying into her endeavor, she invites you to this existent space of pure attitude in which she’s chuffed to play. And it’s our shared glee that I love. “ I can teach you / but I’ll have to charge.” The beats, the bass pound on the body, drawing it into action, but she’s never one for choreography. She’s about small gestures that endorse a local experience of the music. When performing the new song, “Acapella,” she slams her hand against her hip, pounding her side to the rhythm. There’s no sweat on the brow and she moves her body only as much as she needs to. Beyond the always-important stylings, it’s quite economical. There’s no extraneous frills or extra-musical fireworks on her behalf to promote this moment. Unless you count the swagger. This she wields in lieu of an Aguilera or Houston voice. Hers is a husky coo. It’s very human, very… I’d say amateur, but American Idol has made amateur a place of technical precision. Kelis is antithetical to that vie for perfection, thank god. She is the poster child for making due with what you have. And she loves to show us that that is often too much.
Kelis’ success has always been her use of a catchy and effortless single as a platform for self promotion and invention. But not in that annoying Bowie way; rather she casually highlights the figure behind the mane / milkshake / diamond grill. More than one reviewer has jibed that her songs often sound like she’s a guest on her own single, but I’m not sure that’s such a problem. Each campaign instigates a kind of role play. And her cross platform marketing approach incorporates every element of hype available at her disposal. Her genius is her ability to instill even this promotional path with an air of begrudged apathy, as though she deigns to do it. In fact, it’s a genius part of the whole package. Her new song “4th of July (Fireworks)” contains only 60 words, repeated in different variations. From her early, jittery Neptunes tracks to these biggest-names-in-dance-music beats that rule Flesh Tone, Kelis has always sounded like she’s foremost having a laugh, just in it for the fun. This approach has always seemed too much for mainstream tastes: from that huge clown-tinged mane to the spewing milkshakes that ejaculate all over her ‘Milkshake’ promo, there’s always an endearing bemusement that doesn’t sit as well as the bland divas that surround her, embracing their art direction to the T (and excelling). It’s rather perfect that her albums don’t sell well. That’s missing the point.
But… In the name of album reviews, let’s have a run through, Flesh Tone, shall we? The surprising “Intro” is much more than it sounds. Streaming Moroder style synths are brought down by some spacey lyrics. I’m none-too-sure what this song is about, but it seems an injustice that its title undercuts it. At 3:30, it’s more of a song than any of Kelis’ less-than-1-minute "intro"s of yore. Track #2, “22nd Century,” made the rounds of hype circuits, when Kelis first performed the track live at the Miami Music Producers conference last year. A low quality Vimeo couldn’t convey the song’s strength, which lies in the song’s massive and impeccable production by Boys Noize. This whole album is about euphoric/healing dancing, so these first two tunes really set the (flesh) tone. A segue from ‘Intro’ into ’22nd Century’ commands: "we control the dance floor / we control the dance floor / dance floor / dance floor / dance." It’s one of the greatest touches on the album, as the words cue the voluptuously bass-y beat that drives “22nd Century” (where, of course, "everybody’s dancing, dancing"). This is followed by the highlight of the album: its new single, “4th of July (Fireworks)” which comes on like a mid-90s dance song in its use of repetition. It’s surprising at first, but with precious few words and a 6-minute length, it really takes you in for a spin, if you let it. It’s a ballsy move, being this formally futurist-retro as to quote from a recent past which threatens to conjure embarrassing memories of late-night MTV Amp episodes. But it pays off.
The remainder of the slim album (it clocks in at 37 mins) has its peaks and valleys. I’ve wanted “Home” to take off ever since Kelis released a mixtape that featured a snippet from its "ooohoohoohaahooh" chorus, and I’m still waiting. “Acapella” is a work of flawless beauty. Driving and affecting, it doesn’t get much better than this. “Scream” is viable club fodder, but some last minute pop production flourishes have been added to the demo version that leaked earlier this year. The new "1-2-3"s at the beat swells don’t really strike me as necessary.
“Emancipate” is sadly at home on a Kelis album, sad for its mere ability to bring down the quality. Without any viable chorus, the embarrassing track just chants "Emancipate yourself" ad infinitum, until you hit skip. I first heard “Brave” performed at a small club show Kelis put on at Santos Party House earlier this year. It was the only track that I had not heard prior to the performance and it made quite the impression. “Brave” is a stunning blend of ravey minimalist techno and personable pop. "Thought I had nothing to lose, but I was super wrong / it was the circumstance I got my power from / I was super cool but now I’m super strong." The tune lives up to its startling first impression (though this is one of the primary instances where the segues that bind the tracks together like a megamix hinder rather than help listening, as the tune just rather abruptly fades, not seeming all that “Brave” in structure).
Kelis has this relatively annoying schtick right now where she claims that the whole album is about her child and she really doesn’t care about the competition of record sales, because this is the only album she could have made at this point in her life. This is her life experience, and you can’t compete with that. Blah blah blah. She would fare better saying: "My albums have never sold well. I make songs that are sensational events. They’re summer jams, meant for club dancing, low-riding, stealing and they’re likely used up by the time the actual single hits iTunes." Neil Kulkarni recently called them "novelty records," but I think that’s not totally fair. Kelis’ singles have never been great products in the capitalistic music-industry sense, because they’ve always depended on other avenues of enjoyment. This has actually increased their value. And now that Kelis has this huge alimony check that all the world knows about, she’s more than happy to relate that Flesh Tone is not about money simply because she doesn’t need it. It’s never really the song itself that is the cause de célèbre. It’s about giving Kelis attention. And I’m all for that!
*Illustrations on this page and page 4 by Deric Carner
and BTW Bradford’s Ultimate Kelis Mixtape is: