For her latest career reinvention, Kelis is trying on a rock-and-soul hybrid helmed by producer Dave Sitek (TV On The Radio) with an album called "FOOD" (out Tuesday on Ninja Tune), conveniently released at the same time as she's hosting a new show for the Cooking Channel, "Saucy & Sweet" and a line of condiments called Feast. And in that show’s first episode, she prepares a personal recipe for "Jerk Ribs," which happens to be the name of “FOOD”’s first single. But the 34-year-old singer recently insisted to Billboard that her newfound career synergy is all accidental. "If I had planned it this way, it wouldn't have worked out as well," says Kelis, who studied years ago to be a saucier at cooking academy Le Cordon Bleu and is finally putting those skills to use with "Saucy & Sweet."
Luckily, "FOOD" is just as tangy as the concoctions Kelis whips up every week on the Cooking Channel, in spite of the stylistic departure from her R&B albums like "Kaleidoscope" and "Tasty" as well as 2010's dance-focused "Flesh Tone." But even though the genre boundaries are tougher to define this time out, Kelis says the process was quite similar to her best-known work. "Whether it was the Neptunes, who are extremely musical and played everything live, or even working with people like Raphael Saadiq, I've been able to create something that feels like you’re in the room, living the music."
Which tracks on "FOOD" are most fulfilling? Read on for Billboard’s track-by-track review.
Kelis' four-year-old son Knight Jones introduces this song ("Hey guys! Are you hungry? My mom made food") and seems to be the inspiration of this breezy track. "So much of who we are is from who first taught us how to love," she sings wistfully.
2. "Jerk Ribs"
Kelis teased "Food" a full year ago with this brassy, funk-laced jam, which appears to take its title more from the southern BBQ vibe it creates than any specific lyric. (In fact, Kelis originally called the song "Call On Me" before reverting to the more irreverent title producer Dave Sitek used to describe the song in the studio.) With a live band, full horn section and gritty, soulful vocals from Kelis, the song immediately sets the pace for an album wholly unique from any she's released before.
3. "Let Forever Be"
Perhaps the most straightforward pop song on the album, "Let Forever Be" layers live horns and strings on top of a burbling synth line reminiscent of Stevie Nicks' "Stand Back," but with a triumphant vocal from Kelis that gives the song one of "FOOD"’s sturdiest choruses.
What’s a 34-year-old single mom looking for in a man these days (especially when their ex-husband is Nas)? "I want to be blown away," Kelis sings plaintively on this refreshingly honest, blasé ballad about steering clear of the meat market ("people seem too crazy so I'll read a book.") Just don’t ask her who "Floyd" is in real life – like "Jerk Ribs," this is another song with a random placeholder title.
Kelis keeps the tempo at a slow jam’s pace for this equally candid lament about turning down the limelight for a simpler life ("I became a runner to escape the fame / I still don’t wanna play / a lion will never change,” she sings.) And with torchy vocals surrounded by a full band and cooing backup singers, this is Kelis embracing her inner Dusty Springfield.
6. "Hooch" The Stax-session soul continues to pour over this swoony midtempo cut, which establishes a comfortable Thursday-night groove even before Kelis hits the mic with some sage life advice ("eat the peach without the pit.")
Time to get back on the dancefloor for this James Brown-esque funk workout. Again, no lyrical references to a peach or cherry dessert here, but clearly a certain gentleman has left a sweet taste in Kelis' mouth ("ooh baby / you got this feeling like a holiday,” she trills.) Stay tuned for the surprise key change in the finale, which finds the singer trying out her Mariah Carey whistle octave.
8. "Bless The Telephone"
A straightforward acoustic guitar-and-vocals ballad, "Bless The Telephone" is also the album’s sole cover. Originally performed by 70s folk-soul vocalist Labi Siffre, "Telephone" turns even sweeter and more sincere in Kelis' hands by doubling as a duet with Sal Masekela, who sings the melody along with Kelis.
9. "Friday Fish Fry"
If Quentin Tarantino ever tapped Kelis to record an original song, it would probably come out something like this, right down to its sexy, B-movie chorus: "Give me what I want / Give me what I need / I said I’m begging you please / I’m down on my knees."
Kelis goes from Blaxploitation to a trippy take on James Bond themes, with this cinematic take on what Shirley Bassey might sound like if she tried her hand at modern pop balladry. A stunner.
Perhaps the most obvious musical references to her marriage to Nas, "Rumble" finds Kelis in emotional turmoil with an ex. "No we don't need therapy / what I need is for you to leave" she sings at one point, before pleading just two bars later "baby don’t go." Kelis' vocals on "FOOD" are sometimes too thin to nail all the ambitious melodies and arrangements the singer has composed with Sitek, but here they're put to expert, evocative use.
12. "Biscuits 'N Gravy"
Much like its namesake meal, "Biscuits 'N Gravy" is hearty stuff – full of hopeful, self-affirming lyrics ("been given a morning / by this time tomorrow I'll be brand new") and blaring trumpets.
Kelis ends "FOOD" on an ethereal note, floating over a futuristic soul arrangement with poetic platitudes ("there are millions just like us / fighting fears and fighting lust") and breathy sighs. "Dreamer" serves as that bonus marshmallow after a really fulfilling five-course meal, the kind whose flavor isn't instantly identifiable but nevertheless quite palatable.