Nas released an album entitled Life Is Good. If it was a veiled assault on the lovely Kelis, it was quite thin, although throughout the record we saw the man unfold in a way he never has before, through introspective rhymes that echoed a deep sense of maturity and a content that confirmed the title. Kelis, on the other hand, has decided to discard with any form of sap, and written a record that, if only in title, is a hommage to her true love, that being food.
Interesting. Even more interesting is the first track, Breakfast. It could almost be a personal letter to her former husband, "I wanna say thank you (thank you) / You've been more than just a man / You've really been a friend" yet she mires the rest of the song firstly in what we assume is past tense, "So much of who we are / Is from who taught us how to love" and then blatantly in the present, "Maybe we'll make it til breakfast". Not until Hooch does Nas make another appearance, and it is cursory at best. Rather than being a love-lorn piece of break up rhetoric, Food is instead a piece that stands starkly in the collection of Kelis records, yet one that still invokes her artistic direction, one that she has painfully forged in an industry and environment that can schew up and spit out less savvy entities. Don't forget this is the girl who once screamed 'I hate you so much right now' on a thousand break up mixtapes in the late 90s. She may only be 34, which is still extremely young in the music world, but Food is as grown up as an evening spent listening to Birth Of The Cool and sipping aged scotch. And a hell of a lot more fun.
That she has never truly incurred on her artistic leanings immediately endears Kelis as a true survivor of the art-pop world. From a girl who cut her teeth on the freshest of Neptunes cuts, and one who was catapulted in to super stardom with hit singles and lavish video clips, you could immediately forgive her for chasing the penny down the piegon hole for the rest of her career. The thing that seems to distinguish these strong R&B personalities is their shrewdness when it comes to sound and direction. Whilst Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Taylor Swift and Mariah Carey all mine a sound until it's depleted and implodes, artists like Beyonce, Kelis, Solange and Janelle Monae evolve. Food is an evolution. 2010's Flesh Tone wasn't, it was littered with Guetta's and god knows what other CD spinners, and yet despite this it was still excellent. It felt organic, and her voice shone over the top of production that threatened to dawrf her. On Food, again we see Kelis' personality taking over and dominating a record. She doesn't need to force it though, like a Madonna or even Nicki Minaj, who both impose themselves upon music. Kelis sways lazily in the wind of a song, and if she doesn't like the direction it's taking she growls, making adjustments until she gets her way.
On Jerk Ribs, her initial falsetto is sweet, it seduces, but almost loses face to the giant helping of horns, until she adds a tiny speck of power in that voice to propel herself above the rise. She pulls off a similar trick on Hooch, although in reverse. That bassline is intense, and the New Zealand dub that smacks over the top of it via more brass creates a cluttered environment that isn't conducive at all to a strong vocal performance. So instead she moans, forcefully enough to be heard, but not enough to sound out of step. Purists might balk at her vocal abilities on Food. You may say she can sing better than this, and I do not know if it is her hitting those ridiculous notes on Cobbler (I suspect not but I am ok with being proved wrong), but this is a true afrobeat, soul record, and even though she sounds aloof at times, on Runnin' she sounds positively sedated, and on closer Dreamer she is lost completely in reverb at times, her vocals ensure that this isn't just background music.
Food is an introspective release, but it almost feels like she has carefully hand picked what we are allowed to see and not see. Runnin' sees her hastily pursued by her past, one that she is loathe to forget yet keeps trying to. "How can I forget you?" is almost a plea, a refuge and yet something she feels must be left behind. This is continued on Rumble, when she laments allowing the past back in, "But like a lapse in my memory / I wanna yell, "baby, don't go"", and is torn at the decision to stick or move. There are nice moments too. On Bless The Telephone she focuses on just what a freaking amazing piece of technology it is, and the weight that can be lifted just from hearing someones voice, even if you cannot be with them physically. All of these characters she speaks of are either imagined or part of her life in some undisclosed way, and despite the at times autobiographical nature of her musings, she keeps the true identity close to her chest. On Forever Be she could be talking about a lover or a friend, and the message of 'my heart is blind' cuts like a knife with an average listener. We've all been there Kelis. Funnily enough, she follows that with Floyd, which is like an online dating profile, and it feels slightly out of place. It's almost too confessional, too blatant to be mixed in with the mystery of the rest of the record.
There's no shortage of female pop vocalists right now. There's also no shortage of men in white shirts and black ties sitting in high rise offices in Manhatten planning their next assault on the charts vicariously through a 25 year old white girl with either breasts or a lack of self control. That's Tier 1 of the industry. On Tier 2 sit those who have earned respect throughout their careers through hard work, perserverance and an ability to turn music from a souless production in to an art form. When Flesh Tones came out in 2010, it was with foreboding that we all approached it. Kelis had success in the pop world, but this felt like a double down on the EDM culture that had emerged. Instead, she flipped it in to a natural process. Food is about as stylistically far away from that as a Cauliflower is from a McDonalds. It's coloured by beautiful sweeping brass gestures, bass-lines that possess the intelligence of Stephen Hawking as they adapt and mould around these sounds, and the odd slash of electric guitar for a bit of texture. Piano's that sound like they've been programmed by Just Blaze or Hit-Boy, yet are clearly live instrumentation. On Biscuits n' Gravy it took me 3 minutes to reproduce the piano loop on my own software at home. It had that sensibility that hip hop music utilises, that simplicity of theme that gives the listener a focal point to sit with and then expand on, yet the fact that it was clearly played live turned it in to an entirely new piece of music. Food touches on the roots of R&B without ever feeling dated, and Kelis allows herself the opportunity to size each song up before diving in. Rather than trying to sound like Erykah Badu, she moulds her husk and growl with falsetto's and sweet harmonising.
I walked away from this record for three weeks and came back, only to be floored by it. It hit me like a train. This is lovely music. Put on Friday Fish Fry the next time you are in the kitchen with your family cooking up some preposterously messy meal and you may just descend in to a food fight, the vibes are so potent. On Pound Cake, just before Drake came in, the voiceover said 'Only real music's gonna last. All that other bullshit is here today, gone tomorrow'. Food will sustain you for years to come, and in ten years pop it back in. It won't date, beauty never does.