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A tamer Kelis would've been hard to imagine in 1999. At the time, the singer's Virgin Records debut, "Kaleidoscope" -- a carnival of offbeat sounds carved by The Neptunes, and the home of her introductory, scorned-ex anthem "Caught Out There" -- was finding its base with the irregulars of R&B. In the span of five albums, Kelis has hung on those hip-girl outskirts, openly averting fame and, with it, commercial success for the most part, aside from 2003's sassy come-on "Milkshake," which hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Along the way, she became a mother, married and divorced rapper Nas, and ditched the hitmaking producers largely responsible for her past albums' most adventurous tones. After all that, her new album, "Food," her first in four years, feels like the aftermath of a supernova. Despite her boundary-pushing backers -- TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek produces and British tastemaker label Ninja Tunes is releasing the album -- it's not as explosive or forward-thinking as its predecessors. Kelis, 34, often seems to embody a young, sonic future without boundaries. But in some ways this is her oldest-sounding project yet, both for better and for worse.
Kelis has always drifted easily from robotic rhythms to cocksure pop and hip-hop, and "Food" is still a scatter-shot of genres -- funk, folk, George Michael-inspired pop. But the foundation here is clearly throwback soul, which Sitek interprets with soothing keyboard pads and Afrobeat brass melodies. The arrangements are big and open but also calm and serene, like a vinyl record playing in the forest.
Such stillness from the wild-at-heart godmother to R&B mavericks like Janelle Monae and Solange is unexpected. The cool-down sticks out even more following 2010's "Flesh Tone," a Euro-inspired house project that, if you've since shuffled over to the dance-music dark side, sounds better now than it did when first released. And Kelis' divorce from Nas, which was finalized that same year, seems like obvious fuel for another angry blow-off like "Caught Out There." But unlike Nas' 2012 album "Life Is Good," the cover of which features a glum Nas holding Kelis' wedding dress, the split isn't a blatant narrative thread on "Food." Still, it's easy to put an ex-factor filter on tracks like "Rumble," about a once-familiar friend who now feels foreign. "It's the strangest thing to have you back in my face/I guess I just got used to my space," she sings, before hitting the hook: "I'm so glad you gave back my keys." "Change" seemingly describes the tears, lies and confusion that come with infidelity: "Should I forgive him/Oh, no, don't wanna let it grow like poison."
But mostly, the newfound optimism of Kelis focuses on what the good part feels like. Loneliness is swept aside by acoustic guitars on the blissful remake of Labi Siffre's "Bless the Telephone." She tells her and Nas' son, Knight, whose vocals pop up on the album opener, "Breakfast," that "the world is yours." And coy Kelis makes a welcome return on "Hooch," a horn-filled funk anthem made for Pam Grier, and "Friday Fish Fry," where she riffs like she's onstage at a speakeasy: "I want that tall drink of water I notice in the corner."
In all, Kelis' weird, rough edges are still there -- "If all was left to me," she sings on "Dreamer," "we'd be naked climbing trees" -- but they've been noticeably softened. Food is a moody indie-soul reinvention filled with gorgeous moments, but leaves you craving a little more of Kelis' old shaking fists and swiveling hips. Sure, she might get up and move again -- she's known to make sharp lefts -- but for now, Kelis seems content to sit and think, and have listeners do the same.
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