Kelis Serves a Soul Buffet From Space on Surreal, Tasty ‘Food’
Release Date: April 22, 2014
Label: Ninja Tune
Kelis has done a lot of (delightfully) strange things with soul music over the course of her career, from aggro-screaming “I hate you so much right now” over sugary Neptunes beats to examining motherhood from the perspective of a dance-pop cyborg. But Food may be her strangest move yet: it’s an album of vintage funk and old-school soul cooked up by the queen of unconventional, sometimes otherworldly R&B.
“This is the real thing. This is the real thing,” Kelis croons in that inimitable husky purr of hers on “Breakfast,” a warm affirmation of earthly blessings and fervent horns that comes off like a sun salutation performed by a Motown girl group. It’s a centered, grounded celebration of the small, day-to-day moments that nourish us, hosted by the one-time purveyor of “22nd Century” virtual realities and sugary “Milkshakes,” with a guest appearance by Kelis’ son, who invites us to come on over for some of his mom’s home cooking. How can we resist?
Food is teeming with warm brass and chunky riffs, with heaping hunks of vintage soul and salty slabs of funk. “Hooch,” for instance, walks a strutting, syncopated bass line ornamented with sighing backup vocals and punctuated with Afrobeat-esque horn bursts. The swaggering guitars, Spaghetti Western shimmer and call-and-response banter of “Friday Fish Fry” falls somewhere between rockabilly and blues rock. And lead single “Jerk Ribs” rolls through a funk-scape of belching baritone sax, jangling tambourines, swelling synths and a chugging triple meter that falls somewhere between Off the Wall and Éthiopiques. It’s a new sound for Kelis, and it suits her, offering up new textures for her sometimes hard-to-place voice to spice up, like a collision of regional cuisines.
The “soul food” angle extends beyond the musical and the metaphorical for Kelis, however. There are those foodie titles, of course: “Biscuits n’ Gravy,” “Jerk Ribs,” “Friday Fish Fry.” They made for a pretty brilliant marketing campaign: Kelis literally sold food out of a truck at SXSW to promote the album (side note: is there anything more SXSW than a Kelis-helmed food truck?). But the literal culinary references are also rooted in the singer’s own life and quest for soul-nourishment: Her mom was a chef, and Kelis actually went to culinary school in her downtime between albums. She also launched a line of jerk sauce and is getting her own cooking show: she’s serious about this cooking business. Food is Kelis’ attempt to address basic human needs, to nourish the gut in every sense with an album that emphasizes the organic and the authentic.
It feels initially like a far cry from the robo-world of Flesh Tone, the kaleidoscopic futurism of her early work, even the candy-colored pop dream worlds of Kelis Was Here and Tasty. And in a sense, this album does seem like an effort to distance herself from her past work: an emphasis on grown and sexy music as a demonstration of how much she’s matured and gotten back in touch with real life. But lest we think one of R&B’s strangest sirens has gone completely terrestrial, Kelis took a fairly unorthodox route to her new organic sound: Food is released on her new label Ninja Tune, a British outfit known for putting out adventurous indie and experimental electronic music by the likes of Amon Tobin and Bonobo. And the album was helmed by Dave Sitek, go-to producer of envelope-dismantling sounds for artists like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Santigold, and member of TV on the Radio, a group that knows from weird, disruptive soul. These are neither typical methods of cultivating a classic soul sound nor conventional choices for someone whose previous work includes beats by the Neptunes and a big hit like “Bossy.”
On much of the Food, then, the vintage soul is couched in a kind surrealist haze. Tracks like the gauzy, lost-in-thought “Runnin'” and the paisley-hued “Cobbler” float away above the solid, dusty funk that anchors the rest of the album. Then there’s “Change,” a stylistically complex (Hare Krishna chant meets Moroccan Berber folk song meets Afro-futurism?) and structurally ear-boggling track anchored by the repeating line, “You can’t escape the grips of desire” that’s delivered like a curse. Kelis’ strange, inimitable voice — at once earthbound and alien — winds its way into every wrinkle and crevice of these new sonic textures. Food is indeed “the real thing,” a satisfying album grounded by familiar funk, rooted in classic soul sounds and focused on the everyday rituals of life: eating, playing with the kids, fighting — and making up — with the significant other. But it’s still Kelis’ vision of real life: a hearty take on soul food that still manages to shock your tastebuds.