Kelis – ‘Food’ (Ninja Tune)

“Seems like no one is surprising anymore”, confesses the Harlem born and raised singer-songwriter and avant-R&B icon on her simply-titled new LP, ‘Food’. Kelis is back, this time with experimental rock musician and producer Dave Sitek who is well-known for his eclectic production work with fellow New Yorkers TV on the Radio and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Released via independent electronic music label Ninja Tune, Kelis and her new collaborators seem intent on building a new space in the music industry, one which is both independent of stifling major-label influence while retaining its pop charm and broad appeal.

‘Food’ essentially captures the spirit of the singer’s well-earned reputation for constantly pushing the genre boundaries and conventions of contemporary R&B by seamlessly incorporating the ingredients of Gospel, Soul, Funk, Afrobeat, Disco, Folk, Jazz, Rock n Roll and everything in between. This restless and adventurous style is something that has been at the core of her musical output and has developed organically since her classic 1999 Neptunes produced debut, ‘Kaleidoscope’, which at the time of its release, pushed R&B into the electronica of the new millennium.

The emotional connections Kelis has made between food and music is blurred throughout the album and opening track ‘Breakfast’ begins with a warm, cuddly invitation to listeners from her infant son. Kelis’ lyrical style is about as varied as the genres she plays with, ‘Food’ is particularly influenced by her love for cooking and draws much inspiration from her life as a trained chef. The song is airy, minimal and contains the upbeat, inspirational elements of Gospel. Lead single ‘Jerk Ribs’ takes the LP to dizzying heights early on as Kelis’ homage to her father and Harlem’s rich musical and cultural heritage. An unforgettable rolling bass line and the clattering percussion that has become a trademark of Sitek’s production style really shines here as horns, keys, bass and strings are all intricately woven into the soaring drama of the chorus which according to Kelis ‘feels just like it should.’ The track expresses a love for music itself and the excitement of young creativity as she advises us to ‘look for melody in everything’.

‘Forever Be’ builds on the summer barbecue garden party atmospherics of ‘Jerk Ribs’ and Sitek’s layer of shimmering synthesisers brings us to the similarly shiny Disco era. The sun is shining; the percussion is consistent and forms the backbone of simple, direct lyrics on the anxieties faced in an intimate relationship. Things dramatically change on ‘Floyd’, which is easily the centrepiece of the LP and one of Kelis’ most arrestingly unique vocal performances to date. The mood becomes reminiscent of a smoke filled Harlem nightclub in 1920 while retaining its entire modern-cool, under Sitek’s immaculate production, mournful strings, organs and horns produce the transcendental, religious atmosphere of Gospel music. The confessional lyrical style found in classic Soul music of Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye is also evident here, “I want to be blown away” is heavily textured and layered with harmonies as she frankly discusses the human condition, loneliness and sexual desire.

‘Runnin’ is the darker, more enigmatic counterpart to the pure vulnerability of ‘Floyd’. Sitek’s healthy use of reverb and electronic keys throughout turn the song into a cinematic, mid tempo shuffle where Kelis breathes life into the words ‘How could I reject you? The 1960s girl group harmonies propel the song toward a rolling and satisfying climax. The confident Blaxploitation film swagger of ‘Hooch’ exudes the effortless cool the singer is known for, a chorus of breathy Diana Ross inspired vocals and Funk creates something sexy, fresh and timeless. Kelis’ global influences are at the forefront of ‘Cobbler’ which opens with snippets of conversation between friends over tropical Afrobeat percussion. The warm, earthy tones of Sitek’s dense and intelligent arrangements incorporates a playful, fearless approach that melds a loose, jam session vibe with a surprising key change and technically precise operatic Disco vocal transition, a call-and-response between Kelis and the equally committed and hearftfelt backing vocalists (“you make me hit notes that I never sing / she never sings these notes”). It’s a party.

Suddenly we are greeted with an acoustic cover of ‘Bless the Telephone’, originally performed by Labi Siffre, adding another unexpected turn of tenderness and vulnerability. ‘Friday Fish Fry’, ‘Change’ and ‘Rumble’ continue to experiment with elements of Americana and even the spaghetti Western soundtrack. Traditional Pop, Soul and Rock n Roll are blended to varying degrees of success. ‘Rumble’ is the strongest of the three, the conflicted lyrics expressing both the will for independence and the security of marriage. This candid lyrical style has always been central to Kelis’ writing but there are many generational differences between the passion of “I hate you so much right now” 15 years ago on debut single ‘Caught Out There’, and the poignant and specifically adult complications of “I’m so glad you gave back my keys”.

‘Biscuits n’ Gravy’ is a philosophically minded jazz composition, initially sparse and melancholy Kelis and Sitek pay homage to the past and create something new, just as explosive and full of life. The alienation of fame, “I’m standing in the middle of some other person’s life” and the process of renewal and healing, “By this time tomorrow I’ll be brand new”. The soothing finale, ‘Dreamer’ brings the underlying theme of looking into the self for answers, is it me or my art? Sitek’s backdrops allow Kelis’ vocals to offset the dramatic lushness of it all. Although his organic blend of modern electronics with deep brass instruments gives the gorgeously realized LP strong connections to the authenticity of the here-and-now, while paying homage to music’s glittering past, it is Kelis’ focused, direct lyrical content and expressive but relaxed vocals inspired by her extensive musical heritage that gives ‘Food’ its unique and intimate energy.

‘Food’ is out now on Ninja Tune.

Kareem Reid