Honestly, who would have thought that the Milkshakes girl would have one of the best voices in contemporary popular music? Yes, Kelis the woman behind great bops like Milkshakes, Bossy, and the fantastic sex jam In Public had a great run in the early 2000s with her distinct raspy voice. But lets be real, no one was listening to these songs for her voice. The catchy production and saucy song lyrics always took center stage and as a result all of her early catalogue will unfortunately live on in #throwback hell.
In 2010 Kelis made a comeback of sorts with the great Flesh Tone. It is a short little record that barely breaks the threshold between EP and LP and is rooted deeply in house music and euro-discotheques. The record while great fun already sounds severely dated by today’s standards.
Instead of immediately working on a follow up to the commercially underappreciated Flesh Tone, Kelis did what any respected musician would do…she went to culinary school!
No really, she did.
Essentially retiring from music all together, she decided to try something different and pursue her dream of becoming a chef. Somewhere along the line she found a creative spark to revitalize her music career and teamed up with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek for FOOD, released in 2014.
FOOD is unlike anything Kelis had done before. It is primarily a soul record with the majority of the songs rooted in strong brass arrangements and subtle synthesizer flourishes. Importantly, for the first time ever Kelis’ highly expressive voice is allowed commands these Motown-like hits like she has been doing it all her life.
The lead single, Jerk Ribs documents this reinvention with lyrics about finding musical inspiration in all things in life. Over a track of high-energy horn playing and an organic dancehall rhythm section everything about this track screams authenticity. It is almost a shame that it took this long for Kelis to find her strongest musical outlet.
If the record has any real faults it is that some of the lyrics are a little limp. Particularly the track Breakfast-the listener wants everything about this song to work-The music is phenomenal and Kelis’ voice sounds great and relaxed, but the lyrics are just so bland and dare I say…cheesy. Throughout the record there are a handful of clunky lines stuck into the tracks. This is almost forgivable though. In a lot of ways this record is far more sonic-oriented rather than what the songs are saying. What is important is that every one of the songs just simply sound really damn good.
The real highlights come towards the end of the record with the New Orleans brass sounding Cobbler utilizing Kelis’ whistle register. The incredible Friday Fish Fry sounds like Southern rock married with 60’s doo-wop and the best track of the album, is Biscuits ‘n’ Gravy a slow building track where the first half has little piano cascades drawing inspiration from classical music (i.e. Nina Simone?) leading in the triumphant horn conclusion.
In a lot of ways FOOD feels like a happy accident. This record never should have been as enjoyable as it is. In a post-Amy Winehouse and post-Adele world making a retro-sounding soul record is dangerous business. That is where FOOD differs though. While the record as a whole draws from sounds of the past, it never once plays the retro-card and even now, two years later, it sounds just as fresh as it did upon release as well as being criminally underrated remaining a happy little secret to those who have had the pleasure of listening.