Kelis is, hands down, one of the most unpredictable artists currently working on the contemporary music scene. Her sound has changed almost as often as the labels she’s recorded for. With 5 releases under her belt, she has been on Jive, Virgin, Arista (via her deal with Star Trak) and now Interscope (via her deal with will.i.am Records). Her debut on the scene, over a decade ago, began with the edgy, near comical single, “Caught Out There” which had the memorable chorus, “I hate you so much right now…”. She certainly had no intention of arriving quietly on the scene. Pharrell and Chad Hugo (of The Neptunes and N.E.R.D. fame) were the masterminds behind her debut. It was hard to know just how seriously to take Kelis. But you certainly didn’t forget her.
Her debut album, ‘Kaleidoscope’, sold a modest 250,000 in the states. The album did much better in the U.K., going gold (100,000 U.K. units) and earning Kelis a Brit award for International Breakthrough Act. That international success would possibly be what eventually led Kelis to ‘Flesh Tone’. She followed up her debut with the non-US, international-only release, ‘Wanderland’ and then ‘Tasty’ which featured the decidedly more hip hop “Milkshake” single. That single also contained a memorable line, “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard…”. On the strength of that single, her third album would go gold in the states (500k units) and also keep her international star on the rise. The album would go platinum in the U.K. (300k units) and “Milkshake” received considerable airplay across the European continent.
‘Kelis Was Here’, her fourth album, came out right as Arista, the label responsible for its marketing and distribution, was about to be dissolved into the Sony BMG fold. The album was decidedly more hip hop, led by the first single, “Bossy”. Once again, caught in the turmoil of a new label home, her album seemed to get short changed. Musically, she had moved, or progressed, depending on how you looked at it, from the near alternative R&B sound of “Caught Out There” to the hip hop beats of “Milkshake” and “Bossy”. Now on her will.i.am/Interscope debut, on “Intro”, she declares that “we control the dancefloor” and welcomes you to the “22nd Century” by the next track. The album is led by the electronic sound of “Acapella”. The video for “Acapella”, set against a blue screen, is effective in its simplicity. David Guetta, arguably the hottest producer in dance music today, produced the track. It has remnants of Giorgio Moroder’s sound, updated to today’s standards. While the track, and much of the music on ‘Flesh Tone’, has that hypnotic, entrancing quality of electronic music, it also can sound rather pedestrian. Though it looks like the album will repeat her success internationally, electronic music does little to make you understand Kelis’ appeal. She is not known for great vocals. And in this setting, she sounds generic, uninspired and rather mundane. That may not be completely her fault. It is difficult to infuse personality into electronic dance music. Madonna was able to do so with ‘Ray of Light’, but, by ‘Music’, she had also become less interesting.
Electronic music needs a very strong and distinctive personality otherwise it becomes the producer’s domain. Grace Jones had the personality. Donna Summer added just the right infusion of soul to her foray into electronic music. Cher found it in a mixture of a good song, good timing and clever studio flourishes with “Believe”. Madonna understands the medium enough to manipulate its qualities to complement her sound. Kelis should have the necessary personality to also meet the challenge. On ‘Flesh Tone’, that challenge is not clearly met. There are moments on ‘Flesh Tone’, especially on the first single, “Acapella”, where she sounds in control. On “Scream”, she starts out nearly mundane, and then the chord shifts and the mood shifts causing her to rise to the occasion. More tracks like this would have benefitted the album greatly. “Emancipate” has a soulful center, as it is engulfed by the near monotonous chant of “emancipate yourself, emancipate yourself …”. There are also intriguing interludes that give the album texture.
There are times on ‘Flesh Tone’ where Kelis simply fades into the mix and turns the album over to the producer. That is one of the pitfalls of this genre. Her phrasing on “4th of July (Fireworks)” is far too intense. She sings “nothing you ever say or do, would be as good as loving you…” in far too deliberate of a manner. “Song for the Baby” is the one obvious call to Top 40. It has a light feel to it and enough hooks to keep the listener engaged. Clearly, Kelis is betting that her audience will acquiesce and follow her on this new musical adventure. She makes no attempt to bridge her hip hop and electro-dance audiences, as this is pretty much a dance electronic album. While there are enough elements to her ‘Flesh Tone’ project, such as interesting videos, Top 40 allowances, etc., it could have been much more. Had some of that quirky, edginess from “Caught Out There” or “Bossy” or “Milkshake” found its way onto ‘Flesh Tone’, Kelis would have entranced us, rather than seeming a little too, well, spaced out.
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry. Kirk can be contacted via email at email@example.com
About the Writer
K. Bonin has worked in the music industry for the last three decades. He describes himself as "a child of Motown and the classic rock era." Having spent the balance of his career at Arista Records, his experience and passion gives him a unique perspective on music and the music industry.