Album Review: Kelis – ‘Flesh Tone’ (Polydor)

With a new-found love of banging choons, she’s living up to her own legend yet again…

Ah, Kelis! ‘Milkshake’. Genius. Pop auteur. Credible diva. And other such feeble journalistic platitudes that belie the fact that the last time she released a hit, it was 2003. Her most recent album, 2006’s ‘Kelis Was Here’, tanked, and rightly so. Since then? Radio silence. She’s been doing the real life thing: having a baby, divorcing Nas. In pop terms, four years is an aeon, seven the entire history of the universe. To say that her back was against the wall coming into ‘Flesh Tone’ is to overstate things: the reality was that people no longer cared either way.

So there’s a convenient plucky-underdog narrative ready to be spun when we tell you that ‘Flesh Tone’ has already filled out an application form for pop record of the year. Kelis is about to become big news again.

Its main thesis is this: Kelis loves robots but isn’t that bothered about R&B anymore. ‘22nd Century’ offers the keynote address: “Welcome to the 22nd century/Religion, science fiction, technology”. The hoover-house synths that are shortly to become album hallmarks swoop in; a massive four-to-the-floor kick-drum kicks off, and we’re swept into a hyper-saturated world of frazzled diva futurism, before the whole thing drowns itself in wave after wave of ear-candy digitised bleeps and gurgles. This, it has to be said, is already the track after the one where she goes Italo disco. But before the ones where she goes Ed Banger, or Jason Nevins, or David Guetta.

Brilliantly, while ‘Flesh Tone’ is in thrall to dance music, it seems agnostic as to whether it prefers the credible type or the chart sludge. Instead, it chooses to celebrate the sheer brain-bending sonic possibilities of the thing in all its forms: a tour de rave of minor-key Oakenfold trance riffs (‘Home’), housey samba styles (‘Emancipate’), electroclash bridges (‘Scream’), DFA1979 distorted crash cymbals (‘Brave’), sleek nu-disco (‘Intro’) and everything inbetween. The fact that she worked with both Benni Benassi and Diplo; both and Boys Noize, offers some sense of how wilfully naive Kelis has been in her choices. The fact it’s not a hypercolour abomination offers some sense of how smart she has been in her execution. Seldom since ‘Miss E… So Addictive’ has a star from the R&B world displayed such fannish intimacy with the dance world. Her way with a melody has not deserted her. Her ability to appear unimpeachably cool hasn’t wavered either. But these are as nothing. What’s important here is simply her direction: a genuinely innovative bearing that breaks new ground for pop without sounding any less pop for it. Kelis. Genius. Pop auteur. Credible diva. Welcome back.

Gavin Haynes

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Click here to get your copy of Kelis’ ‘Flesh Tone’ from the Rough Trade shop

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