Can you smell what Kelis is cooking? In her 15-year career, Kelis Rogers has been hard to pigeonhole: She got her start as Pharrell’s go-to vocalist in The Neptunes’ posse, released four albums of spacey modern R&B and, following the birth of her son, entered the futuristic dance diva stage that motherhood so often inspires in pop stars.
With Food, her first album in four years (out April 22 on Ninja Tune Records), Kelis celebrates two more reinventions. One is culinary: The bossy saucier (literally — she’s a Le Cordon Bleu-trained sauce-maker) has her own condiments line and a Cooking Channel show that premiered in February. The other is musical: She ditched the raving beats of 2010’s Flesh Tone for producer Dave Sitek (known for his work with TV on the Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and served up an organic batch of vintage American soul inspired by — what else from the woman whose milkshake brought all the boys to the yard? — the kitchen.
For an artist whose breakout song found her screaming “I hate you so much right now!” while sporting a rainbow afro, Kelis’ latest transformation isn’t her flashiest. Given that she once opened for Britney Spears and had will.i.am executive-produce her last record, the indie path isn’t the most obvious, either, but it suits her well: her smoky voice sounds more at home here than it did among the strobe lights of Flesh Tone. Take Kelis out of the club, and all the colorful cracks and scratches of her voice shine.
The album heats up when she has the full force of Sitek’s 13-piece band behind her, like on brassy first single “Jerk Ribs,” which lets the horns do the talking on top of a “Losing You”-like beat (à la Solange), or when she slows down to dish real talk about modern relationships. Over the staccato piano chords of “Rumble,” Kelis blows a cool kiss-off that’s both mature and loaded with sick burns: “You’ve got so many issues, but I guess something’s up with me too / I’m just fine by myself, but who’s gonna help you?” Blame record label struggles that at one point had her vowing to never make an album again, or blame an ex the press won’t let let her leave behind — Food is the sound of a grown woman who’s over the bullshit.
It’s also the occasionally sleepy sound of a record made by just a few people. Maybe it’s the tryptophan talking, but Food is the first album in years that Kelis concocted with only one producer, which makes it difficult to digest in a single sitting — a meal with one too many courses that all taste the same. Some of the songs build to more than the sum of their ingredients, but a few are left to stew and fizzle out, lacking the spark even the slow-cooked slow jams of 2006’s Kelis Was Here pulled off amid Dr. Luke power pop and earthshaking Bangladesh beats. It’s telling that the song that best showcases her husky voice and the album’s love-smitten themes isn’t even one of her own, but a cover of Labi Siffre’s 1971 song “Bless the Telephone.” Sure, the sweaty call-and-response breakdown of “Friday Fish Fry” will make any listener thirsty, but the most appetizing part about Food is imagining what course Kelis will serve up next.