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Kelis the singer still hasn’t caught up with Kelis the star child. For years, the Harlem-born chanteuse successfully cultivated a fascinating stage persona: an audacious, celestial seductress capable of navigating both the outer spaceways and your ruggeder hoods. The image certainly distanced her from other female R&B singers. Musically, however, Kelis has never quite distinguished herself, in terms of either singing or songwriting. She doesn’t have Erykah Badu’s theatrical finesse or Joi’s rapturous conviction—and she certainly ain’t got Beyoncé’s star power. When you take away all the freaky smoke and mirrors, Kelis is not too different from other B-list songbirds such as Monica, Mya, and Brandy: She’s as good as her production.

Strangely enough, being closely associated with überproducers the Neptunes has both helped and hindered Kelis’ career. When she made her debut, with Kaleidoscope, in 1999, she was the perfect femme fatale to install in Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo’s futuristic soundscapes: never stirring enough as a vocalist to call too much attention to herself, but charismatic enough to get the job done. Her flame-colored mane and retina-burning outfits—not to mention her divinely curvaceous body—made for delicious eye candy on video, too. Although Kaleidoscope didn’t really have much else going for it, it nonetheless announced the arrival of an interesting new pop icon.

But as the Neptunes saturated the airwaves with more and more projects, Kelis began looking like the redheaded stepchild. Lesser talents—hell, even Britney—began landing better songs. Had “I’m a Slave 4 U” or “Boys” been on Kelis’ 2001 follow-up, Wanderland, the disc would undoubtedly have warranted a stateside release. Still, the album wasn’t nearly as disposable as some critics claimed: The electropunkish “Young, Fresh ‘n’ New,” the dreamy “Shooting Stars,” and the rockish “Perfect Day” all showed new artistic ambition, even if the rest of Wanderland lacked oomph.

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The new Tasty finds Kelis tweaking both her image and her sound. She has wisely toned down the galactic ingénue get-up, going for softer, more approachable attire. She’s still assigned to the quirky-sex-kitten role—on “Intro,” for example, she hand-feeds her paramour a series of increasingly delectable treats—but this time Williams and Hugo have helped her to, er, flesh things out a bit. The album’s hoochie-mama sing-along lead single, “Milkshake” (“My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard/And they’re like, ‘It’s better than yours’/Damn right, it’s better than yours/I can teach you/But I have to charge”), is set against a buzzing synth riff and Bollywood percussion. And sexual-exhibitionist ode “In Public” sets the potty-mouth rhymes of fiancé Nas to a jaunty robofunk beat.

Both “Intro” and “Milkshake” are standard Neptunes fare: enjoyable, not-too-subtle nods to Jamie Starr-era Prince. But the New Wave-inspired “In Public” was helmed by Rockwilder, signifying a noticeable change from Kelis’ previous work. She and the ‘Tunes are still tight, but here they hook up on only six of 14 cuts. Elsewhere, she works with Dallas Austin, Raphael Saadiq, André 3000, and Damon Blackmon “Grease.” This diversification proves to be a mixed blessing: Tasty includes the most durable songs of any Kelis disc yet, but the consistently opulent tracks frequently overpower her anemic voice. Too often, her singing is so subdued and perfunctory that she disappears.

Such is the case on “Millionaire,” a wistful duet with André 3000 about being rich and lonesome. Dre’s presence is so commanding that Kelis is relegated to background coos and brief melodic asides. With its infectious melody, Paisley Park synth orchestrations, and Linn drum-machine rhythm track, it’s a damn good song. But it’s certainly not Kelis’. The singer’s lack of presence is also a problem on Saadiq’s “Glow,” a beautifully layered downtempo jam that she chirps through indifferently, robbing its mystical-love lyrics of any power. On the Neptunes-produced cuts, Kelis mostly goes through the motions, letting the superior soundtracks generate what excitement there is.

Not that Kelis never rises to the occasion. On Austin’s grungy “Keep It Down,” she belts out the down-with-boys verses with all the ass-kickin’ attitude the song requires. And on the Neptunes’ suspicious-minded “Rolling Through the Hood,” she aptly conveys the teeth-clenching anger of catching a cheating boyfriend. For the most part, though, her contributions merely weaken Tasty’s otherwise powerful flavor. Turns out the change of wardrobe was a bad idea, after all: Now it’s impossible to see the difference between Kelis and any other R&B chick.

Emo-soul crooner Musiq is also struggling to fashioning a distinctive personality. He has the look down pat: ’70s-era applejack caps, studded denim jackets, and groovy eyewear accessorizing loose hiphop gear. As a singer, he uses his cherubic tenor to evoke neo-soul’s high ideals of self-affirmation and incense-scented lovemaking. But even though it’s easy to mistake his fairly generic crooning for that of other finely manicured soulsters, Musiq is in a better position than Kelis: His image isn’t so out-there that his music can’t measure up. Sure, he has an idiosyncratic penchant for run-on titling (“Dontchange,” “Bestfriend,” “Momentinlife”), but otherwise, the Philadelphia native is basically the Clay Aiken of neo-soul.

Soulstar, Musiq’s third LP, flaunts the same touchy-feeliness as last year’s Juslisen and his 2000 debut, Aijuswanaseing: Our hopefully romantic hero loves to sing about love, whether in the form of carnal desire, spiritual fulfillment, or the joys of music-making. His songs are sweet, PG-13 fodder that never delve into pimp lore or jiggyitis but never excite, either.

Musiq has always been more boyishly charming than sexually mesmeric. Along with being notably consistent, perhaps that’s his greatest strength. He sings straight from the heart, without hypersexual braggadocio or purple prose. When he talks about hooking up with a friend for a quickie on the club-bangin’ first single, “Forthenight,” it comes across all earnest and nonthreatening. So does “Infatueighties,” a gushy ballad about sexual frustration in the workplace containing the embarrassing line “She my Missy and I’m her Timbaland.” Even the Rolling Stones’ sleaziest disco hit, “Miss You,” gets turned into a toothless lament.

There are a few exceptions. The contemplative “Babymother,” about an unexpected pregnancy in a fragile relationship, shows that Musiq can effectively tackle more complicated subject matter. The wide-screen “Womanopoly” finds him cleverly using Monopoly property names to spin a tale of a struggling woman who eventually triumphs over poverty. And when the material turns resoundingly cheerful—as on “Momentinlife,” featuring Kindred the Family Soul and Cee-Lo—or glowing—as on “Givemorelove,” a rosy plea to spread more peace and harmony though music—Musiq’s unflinching optimism actually illuminates. On each, Musiq makes up for his lack of sizzling sex appeal and individualistic musicianship with genuine conviction and soulful delivery.

Throughout, Philly-based producers Mama’s Boys (aka Jerome Hipps and Michael McArthur) and CarMui Productions (aka Carvin “Ransum” Haggins and Ivan “Orthodox” Barias) do the City of Brotherly Love proud, constructing lush orchestrations that beautifully cushion Musiq’s voice with soaring strings, buttery bass, and twinkling keyboards. But that well-constructed framework isn’t nearly enough to keep their homeboy from his own worst tendencies. With songs this inoffensive, Musiq could be a soulstar only on Nickelodeon. CP