The R&B innovator's return is satisfying but occasionally a little bland
Kelis has always been far ahead of the R&B pack. The New York-born singer was working with The Neptunes back in 1998 when they were up-and-coming producers, rather than ubiquitous hitmakers, and was migrating towards Euro house in 2010 when such influences were still frowned upon among the urban elite.
All of which made her recent single ‘Jerk Ribs’ something of a surprise, evoking as it did the bump and shuffle of ’60s soul rather than the bleeding-edge sound of the future. It was a decent song, certainly, but didn’t we expect more from Kelis and producer du jour Dave Sitek?
Two months later we have ‘Food’, Kelis’s sixth studio album, recorded in Sitek’s LA home between bouts of inspirational home cooking, with the singer trying out melodies while working in the kitchen as Sitek experimented on the piano in the lounge.
While ‘Food’’s default sound of scratch guitar, tight basslines and resplendent horns evokes soul’s golden age (or fin-de-siècle Macy Gray, for those being less charitable), there are enough details here – the sub-bass rumbling on ‘Forever Be’ or the snappy hip-hop drums on ‘Dreamer’ – to mark this out as a sufficiently modern record.
More importantly, ‘Food’ contains enough songwriting nous, raw vocal dexterity and striking instrumental arrangement to make such retro concerns largely a non-issue. This is especially true on the two standout ballads ‘Floyd’ and ‘Dreamer’, which play heart-on-sleeve vocals against rousing string arrangements that will send your neck hairs into orbit.
The latter, which closes the album, is particularly wild-eyed and stirring. Its epically woozy ‘5 AM’ feel – built on Sitek’s wall-of-sound string rush – suggests a follow-up to ‘Suspended’, the psychedelic peak of Kelis’s 1999 debut ‘Kaleidoscope’.
However, ‘Dreamer’’s success does also highlight ‘Food’’s greatest weakness: an occasional tendency towards blandness, particularly among the more upbeat numbers, with ‘Breakfast’’s relentless positivity too close to Coke-ad territory for comfort.
But in a year where erstwhile Kelis collaborator Pharrell Williams (who produced her first two albums with his Neptunes production partner Chad Hugo) has taken his own brand of soul homage to global success, Kelis’s dig into the genre seems to be another timely move.
And while ‘Food’ may be more home-cooked comforts than Blumenthal experimentation, at its best it’s a fulfilling portion.