For a singer whose biggest hit was called “Milkshake” it seems only fitting that she release an album titled, Food. And though there’s a loose concept for the record, Kelis fans will be happy to know that the alternative-soul diva hasn’t gotten gimmicky with her sixth studio effort – instead, she’s put out another dizzying, diverse collection of songs that show how innovative and interesting soul music can be if it’s performed by an artist as distinct and individualistic as Kelis.
Her last studio album, Flesh Tone was bright, buzzy dance-club pop. With Food, the singer makes a slight detour into some throw-back soul. There are acoustic drums, horns, strings, pianos, and organs. She hasn’t abandoned modern technology, but instead, she uses both liberally, creating a funky sound that recalls Betty Wright, Isaac Hayes, or Barry White. She also hasn’t abandoned her Pitchfork fan base, including some indie-pop numbers, too.
Instead of working with the Neptunes or Dave Guetta, this time Kelis hooked up with Dave Sitek, from TV on the Radio. Sitek is a prolific record producer, working with a wide range of artists including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Telepathe, Santigold, he even produced Scarlett Johansson’s debut album. While the bulk of his work leans toward art rock and indie rock, Food also shows that he’s got a brilliant knack for modern soul, as well. He stays away from the current trends or cliches of urban-pop (synths are used as accents, and don’t dominate the songs), and for a contemporary soul record, Food is gratefully lean (at a relatively minimal 13 songs) without the distraction of stunt guest artists that plague most R&B records.
At its best, Food has a loose, fun feel – as if Kelis and her musicians were jamming together in the studio, just having fun. None of the songs have that crazy, but lovely, weirdness of Kelis’ other work. Instead, Sitek presents his muse as a legit soul singer. He’s sympathetic to her voice – a raspy, pretty, if limited instrument, and doesn’t let the music overwhelm it. She’s got room to try out different things with her voice – subtle trills, minimal melisma, vamping – it’s great to have a Kelis record in which the singer is the main attraction (though her other albums were tremendous, they were as much production feats as they were showcases for Kelis).
The highlights include: the gorgeous “Bless the Telephone,” a cover of the Labi Siffre song, which is simple and poignant with lovely guitar strumming; the first single “Jerk Ribs” which is a great retro-jam, with some great horns, a shuffling beat, even whistles; and the stately, funky ballad “Rumble” that recalls all of those “pissed off” soul songs that wronged women would wail in the 1970s; “Cobbler” is a great dance number that injects the record with some funky sass; “Hooch” has an ace horn section; “Change” is a moody, atmospheric number with haunting vocals, chanting in the background.
For much of Kelis’ career, the media had a hard time pigeon holing the singer – that’s the problem with young black artists who don’t comfortably fall into genres like hip-hop or R&B. Hopefully, if she continues putting out excellent music like Food, she’ll eventually become the kind of celebrity she deserves to be.