Blue poodles licking oysters under a table. A stick-straight ’do. A bathing suit, big jewelry, and plenty of shit-talking. At first glance, the video for “Bossy,” Kelis’ new single, is a shocking departure for a singer who became something of an icon for alty black girls more into rock than soul. With her angry, almost punk delivery set over hip-hop production and her bleached-out eyebrows, torn clothing, and body paint, Kelis managed to reach a segment of listeners unmoved by both sweet, girly singers such as Mariah, and more bohemian, laid-back vocalists like Amel Larrieux.
Just like her producers, the Neptunes, tweaked hip-hop convention with guitars and marching-band weirdness, the New York singer played with the idea of how a diva’s image intersects with her music. She screamed through the video for “Caught Out There,” the first single on her 1999 debut, Kaleidoscope, thrashing her big blond-and-pink mess of hair about. She whispered through the video for the next one, “Get Along With You,” overenunciating, wearing witchy costumes, and invoking Tim Burton–style claymation. At the end of the vid, a little Kelis effigy dismembers herself and disintegrates into a beam of sunshine—a kooky image in complete opposition to her peers at the time, whose videos showed them cavorting in nightclubs and shimmying around on pool decks and yachts.
But with 2003’s Tasty, R&B cliché nearly overtook Kelis: On her mega-hit “Milkshake,” she shook her back, and, of course, her front, boasting that her titular motion brought “all the boys to the yard.” Still, because of her history, it was easy to view the singer as just having a laugh. Then she married Nas, kissed the Neptunes goodbye, and started wearing couture. Now the fears of her longtime fans seem to have come to pass with the flossy, glossy “Bossy”—until you realize that Kelis is, in fact, poking fun at people who care about her morphing image.
Under the track’s synthetic symphony, the first single from Kelis Was Here finds her breathily bragging about being “the first girl to scream on a track”—“I switched up the beat of the drum”—and launching other boasts that only a true diva would dare utter. Modeling a collection of swimwear, she quotes from “Milkshake” while champagne bottles pop all around her and Too $hort makes a back-from-the-dead cameo. Kelis has been vocal about the pressure to look the part of temptress in order to have a successful recording career, as well as how her previous counter-culture costume has pigeonholed her. So, as a compromise, the singer has restyled herself as a conventional R&B singer but uses the look to pick on the slutty visage most commercial R&B singers share. “Oooh/I gave you a taste, you want some mo’,” she coos suggestively on “Bossy.” “Touch down on it like a pro.” But then she proclaims that she rides the beat like…a bicycle—not the word most other singers would’ve chosen in that instance.
Of course, it’s a dirty trick—“Hey, look at me, I’m making fun of R&B chicks, but, to make for authentic satire, I have to wear a bikini!” Kelis gets to feel superior; the viewing public gets to see her almost naked; everyone can be titillated under the guise of irony. That Kelis’ gradual makeover is some carefully crafted commentary on how lookism has ruined modern rhythm and blues is perhaps giving her far too much credit. But even if the look isn’t an elaborate ruse, Kelis at least understands how important image can be, and how fucked up that is, which puts her one step ahead of her well-manicured colleagues.
For those fooled by the rocks that she’s got, Kelis lays the situation bare on “Circus,” a Raphael Saadiq track that relies on cymbals, understated guitar, and a heavy-handed bass line (instead of, thank God, a merry-go-round score or a ringmaster’s voice) to convey the three-ring ridiculousness of the industry she works in. Mrs. Jones explores artifice in the music biz through a weird, half-rapped, singsong delivery, explaining how no one is immune to its allure.
“Come join our circus where we all wear masks/Lie to our fans and expect it to last,” she sings. “Could it be that the trick is on us?/Masquerading like we are the one/Can you blame us?/It started as fun/Didn’t know that the game must be won—sorry.” The verses take a closer, more personal look at falling victim to the R&B makeover machine: “Never did I lie/Never did I mean to trick y’all/But they told me this is how to get rich, y’all/Make a hit song, same lame lyrics, same bass, same kick drum.”
So the visual picture has changed. But for reasons either complicated or as simple as that Kelis became distracted by expensive shiny objects, Kelis Was Here is insanely good. Sans Neptunes, Kelis opts for a hodgepodge of sounds—from the Toni Basil–meets–Joan Jett feel of “I Don’t Think So” to the alt-rock of the will.i.am-produced “Till the Wheels Fall Off,” to the Latin beat of “Have a Nice Day.” It’s a different backdrop, and she’s hardly doing anything different—still whispering, still revealing her secrets in a disinterested tone, still refusing to belt out lyrics in R&B fashion—but it’s complex and fascinating nonetheless.
The model Kelis has been pursuing over the past few years—a mix of mainstream and alternative—is fully realized here. For every “Bossy,” there is a “Trilogy,” which is wonderfully strange and less likely to be tapped as a single. One of the album’s finest moments, it’s a Scott Storch–produced sci-fi romp of waving keys and unidentifiable extraterrestrial noises that set the stage for an outer-space hookup song. No desserts or cars for Kelis: She goes Judy Jetson and implores her boo to “put on [his] moon suit” and find his way to her galaxy.
On “Lil Star,” produced by and featuring vocals from Gnarls Barkley’s better half, Cee-Lo Green, the two put together a sweet soul lullaby. Still, it feels like a larger statement is being made when Kelis says there’s nothing special about her, “she’s just a little star,” and Cee-Lo replies by trying to convince her otherwise.
The few lackluster moments come when Kelis tries on songs that are too sexually charged or radio-ready for her new new image. S&M track “Blindfold Me,” on which the singer adopts the submissive posture and claims that “When he want it, he blindfolds me/And then I get sexy on him” might have been funny and caustic in the hands of the old Kelis of big hair and platinum teeth. But in the hands of the freshly iced-out ingénue, it’s much too much. Ditto for “Aww Shit!”—a Mr. Bangladesh-produced, ambient-sounding track that features Kelis doing a poor imitation of intimate club.
But the clunkers are always followed by tracks such as “Like You,” on which Kelis attempts to explain the difference between liking someone and like liking someone. It’s driven by what sounds, at first, like an enthusiastic whistle or flute, but turns out to be a seizing sample of an aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” that slows down and reveals itself as the song progresses—a trick as deceptively simple as the singer herself.
In the booklet for Kelis Was Here, Kelis models a series of curious cheeky images—a Jazz Age strumpet, a detective and a Li’l Red Riding Hood who may not have anything under their costumes, and a Playboy bunny (Happy Birthday, Mr. Jones!). But despite her shifting appearance, which, oddly enough, has turned girls who wear frayed jeans and Vans into exactly what they despise—girls who pick apart other girls’ looks—she’s still got the good stuff; she’s a peculiar woman who has decided that if the world refuses to separate her looks from her lyrics, she’s going to make a creative statement by tinkering with both.
And even if her fans can’t discern the subtle difference between a run-of-the-mill R&B tart and an artist wearing the outfit of said tart for effect, they don’t have to love her, they don’t even have to like her, but they should try and respect her. CP