Beyonce Knowles bestrode 2003 like some great hot-panted colossus. But, as an embodiment of how modern R&B fuses the worlds of pop and cutting-edge cool she is an unsatisfying icon. Destiny’s Child has enthusiasm, booty and bounce, but she is, essentially, a pop puppet, a steady professional with a good voice who is as happy singing some seismic Rodney Jerkins production as another sappy ballad. Blandness personified in interviews, she seems to have no conception of just how good and important her best records are. And no desire to test her own, or R&B’s, boundaries.
Contrast this with Kelis Rogers, a woman who first impacted on our collective conscious screaming about how much she hated her bloke, right now. A woman for whom The Neptunes reputedly save their craziest creations, who arrived in Britain, in 1999, sporting a bright green fright wig and playing Nirvana covers. This is not how modern R&B divas are expected to behave. Soon, this truly independent woman’s feverish musical curiosity meant she was taking chances, working with Richard X and Timo Maas – as well as, more obviously, Busta Rhymes and Foxy Brown – rather than rabidly chasing mainstream acceptability in the US. Indeed, Virgin didn’t even release her last album, ‘Wanderland’, over the pond.
In one respect, ‘Tasty’ is more orthodox, in that it heralds the arrival of Kelis as a sex-symbol. A scantily clad pin-up on the inner sleeve, Kelis opens her third album with a skit on the ‘9-and-a-half Weeks’ fridge scene, followed closely by the coquettish, exotic rattle ‘n’ buzz of ‘Milkshake’. By the time she and boyfriend Nas are extolling the virtues of DIY porn and shagging on car bonnets, on the Rockwilder-produced ‘In Public’, it’s getting distinctly hot in herre.
However, it never sounds, or looks, like some cynical marketing ploy. Instead, like Prince, the pervier tracks are joyful, self-confident, funny: Kelis a proactive post-feminist icon – sexy, not cheap. Although NME would rather she stopped referring to her notional man as, ahem, “Daddy”.
Far more complete than ‘Wanderland’ or ‘Kaleidoscope’, such vacuum-packed musical freshness is maintained throughout. Dallas Austin production ‘Trick Me’ (“Freedom to you has always been whoever landed on your dick”) is a wonderful computer-processed reggae romp, while his ‘Keep It Down’ is excellent, sharply-edited chunk-rock. The Neptunes weigh in repeatedly, of course, the sultry protest/ love song ‘Rolling Through The Hood’ a highlight.
Meanwhile, Raphael Saadiq’s beautiful, brooding ‘Marathon’ – one of five Kelis co-writes, along with her work as executive producer – closes the album in a remarkable confection of strings stabs, stark bleeps ‘n’ beats, staccato ‘70s bass and Kelis’ jazz-folk ululations. Even ‘Glow’, a seriously silky soul number, is expertly crafted, a triumph in its field.
The stand-out track, however, is, unsurprisingly, Kelis’ collaboration with OutKast’s Andre 3000. Normally, NME can do without rich people complaining about being rich, but ‘Millionaire’ – Warp-ed, effervescent digi-orchestral swing pop – is a complex four-minute tangle of genuine melancholy, that in the bling-bling world of hip-hop and R&B is, basically, saying: “Money? It’s rubbish.” Which we like.
So, are there flaws? Well, the only one NME can think of is that ‘Tasty’ doesn’t obviously contain a ‘Get Ur Freak On’, or even a ‘Crazy In Love’, a huge cutting-edge, crossover tune that would fuse Kelis directly into the mainstream, and simultaneously draw pop fans into her weirder world. A record that would give Kelis, and ‘Tasty’, a real revolutionary impetus.
But, really, how crucial is that? It would be nice. But, half the reason we’re even mentioning it is because artists are increasingly judged, their cachet and validity weighed, by their celebrity and visibility, by their sales. As opposed to their fundamental musical creativity. Which is bullshit.
Releasing ‘Milkshake’, probably the oddest track here, as the first single throws down a noble marker. It suggests that neither Kelis nor Virgin are interested in chasing hits. Which is the right thing to do of course. It is, ironically, far more likely to produce, almost by accident, that golden moment of chart-eating idiosyncratic brilliance which would transform Kelis into a huge star. Maybe ‘Milkshake’ is it… and we just don’t know it yet.
In the meantime? Well, Kelis, like OutKast or Amp Fiddler, is enjoined in a far more serious and entertaining business, that of producing fresh, modern soul music. Music that will last.
Get ‘Tasty’ at the NME Shop