Q&A: Kelis Talks ‘Milkshake,’ Feminism, and Inspirational Love
Over the past 15 years, the singer has gone from raspy, soulful R&B to David Guetta house anthems. With her latest funk-laden release 'Food,' she's trying to find her way back home.
It’s been difficult to peg down Kelis. In 1999, the singer and rapper entered a prospering, girl-pop R&B scene with a pink ‘fro and booty shorts, screaming “I hate you so much right now!” at a cheating ex on her first single, “Caught Out There.” The song set the tone for her style; she was the girl-next-door that was not to be fucked with. Musically, her jazz-influenced, soulful rasp made her all the more relatable to a generation of urban radio listeners whose divas were singers or rappers, but hardly ever both. Kelis had a different approach. With songs like her chart-topping and coyly provocative “Milkshake,” the sauntering cautionary tale “Trick Me,” and bass-heavy, girl-power anthem “Bossy,” she intentionally drawled her raps into melodic verse. It’s safe to say that there has never been anyone else quite like Kelis.
Over the past 15 years, the singer’s life has changed drastically and so has her music. Through the aughts, she very famously dated, married, and then divorced New York rapper Nas, had a child, and began experimenting with different kinds of music. After a hiatus, Kelis returned with 2010’s Flesh Tone and its lead single “Acapella,” a house-inspired release with David Guetta, where she explored motherhood, lust, and adjusting to her new life under the new, cathartic veil of dance music. And now, with her latest album Food, produced by David Sitek, she’s switched it up again, returning to her musical upbringing and sense of home with a funk-laden, soulful release of tunes about raising a family, returning to your roots, and reflecting on a larger, universal love.
We spoke to Kelis about growing up with jazz, love songs to God, revisiting “Milkshake,” her dislike of the word “feminism,” and the evolution of her music over the past fifteen years.
What does it feel like to be back on tour with a full band?
The last album was the only time I didn’t have a band, that actually was out of my regular comfort zone. I grew up with musicians; I’m a musician. That’s sort of how I always see things anyway, so being with the band was the right channel. And I wanted the album [to] sound to really real — it just made sense to have the band. You know what I mean? Like the horns or whatever change everything.
You grew up around live bands, right? I know your father was a jazz musician.
I was a jazz musician and I started playing the violin when I was tiny. I started playing when I was around three years old, I think.
Yeah, probably since I could talk. So then, my dad was a professor at Wesleyan University for music and I would go there for classes — I was just that nerdy child. I was not in college, I was just there taking music classes. My dad at one point was playing a lot, he was always at Grant’s Tomb. Music was just always there. It wasn’t even like a thought! It was just what I did! And I did it because I actually wanted to; I was interested. Out of all my sisters, I was just known as the one that was not tone-deaf.
Was there family encouragement for you to go into music as a career?
I think my parents are just supportive people. My mom in particular is awesome. I have three sisters and they are just brilliant; they’re all some sort of doctor one way or another. My mom, she was about nurturing your natural talent. And she saw that being like my sisters probably wasn’t in the cards for me, and the thing that I was good at she just encouraged.
It wasn’t so much her idea — she was probably fed up with having a musician as a husband, because we were always struggling — but she wanted us to be content human beings. She encouraged us to work hard at what we did and what we enjoyed. Out of all my sisters, I was the one that went into music.
Food definitely feels like a return to comfort and a sense of home. Did working at David Sitek’s home help facilitate that?
It’s funny because the album started out completely different from where we actually ended up going with it. We had a mutual understanding, though. One of the things that I loved was that he let me discover through this — I felt like I saw a separate side of music that I hadn’t. I appreciated that and I understand where he’s coming from. I think we have very similar sensibility.
You write these huge expansive love songs. From “Forever Be” on Food to a song like “Acapella” from the last album to “Caught Out There.” Songs that could be about a significant other or your son. Do you go into records like those writing from a personal place or does it come from wanting to write strong pop hooks?
Honestly it depends. Food is very firmly about being a mother and having a child and it’s about what that means. But then there are other records that — sometimes it’s about having an understanding of love generally. For me, I love the Lord. That’s the greatest love that I can think of. For me that’s a good amount of labor, it doesn’t ever change, so I know I can pull from that while writing.
You know, you talk about the love of God, the love of your creator, and you talk about the love of your child. These are the most unwavering relationships that you can have. And so for me that’s a wealth to draw from. Just because it doesn’t change and it doesn’t waver; it makes me think of these epic kind of loves.
Is [your son] Knight aware of what you do?
Well, you know he’s four. But, yeah, he’s definitely very musical. He played the guitar. No, he’s like determined to play the guitar! But I don’t expect him to not be musical, I’ll encourage that, but that’s not the only thing. But yeah, he is aware. If I ever have a daytime session, when he’s not at school, he’s there. He’s been to shows, he’s very aware that this is what we do.
But I’ll also encourage him to work at whatever he’s doing. Especially now, pushing the music thing. I want him to be musical because it’s great. It’s a great feeling, it’s a great gift, but I don’t know that I want him to do it for a living.
As someone who has gone through a very public, gossip-fueled, publicized breakup, are you wary of sharing parts of your personal life?
I’m a mother and I’m not going to let people exploit me or my son. He has his own life. Like while I’m here — he’s the center of my life. I am very cautious and I think people think you’re public property, which I don’t agree with. But I recognize that’s the position that I put myself in. They don’t put you in that place. It’s not up for discussion.
Songs like “Milkshake,” “Trick Me,” and “Bossy” made you this empowered female figure to a generation for women. Would you consider yourself a feminist?
When I started this, I was 16 years old. I had no intentions of being a female role model. Quite frankly, I thought I had a choice. I thought I could be like, “Well if I say I don’t want to be then I won’t be.” Fast-forward about 20 years and things have changed. But what I will say is that I’m grateful that I was raised by parents — and more specifically by a mother — who gave us a sense of worth and of confidence and understanding about who we were in this great big place. I’ve always shied away from the word “feminism,” only because I think to truly be feminist I think it’s a word that’s unnecessary. I don’t have to stamp it on my forehead or pass out T-shirts to prove that I’m happy to be a woman, or that I feel like I deserve equal rights.
For my generation and for your generation, I’m not negating the fight that women made before us. It’s the same thing as when you talk about civil rights. Well, are things perfect right now? Hell no. Is there still racism in a lot of the world? Absolutely. But the same fight is the fight of change. I don’t feel the need to walk around with a rifle. It’s just not beneficial; it doesn’t make any sense. And for me, I feel like that puts us as women back. I’m in no way, shape, or form ignoring the fact that these things were astronomical in our world and they were necessary because people were smart, and brave, and powerful. But in this year, right now — yeah, do we get paid less than guys do? Sure. Is it equal? No. Should it be? Absolutely.
So am I a feminist? I don’t know. Call it what you want. I am extraordinarily happy to be a woman. I would not change it for the world. I think men should run the world because if not there would be no balance. Men cannot have children, they will never know what that feels like. To actually have life — to give birth and life to someone. If we ran the entire world also, we would annihilate. There would be no balance whatsoever. So I’m fine with that. If men want to run the world, great. Congratulations. If that makes you feel equal to those that can actually create life. But I don’t care. There are so many more important things to think about. I feel like people are constantly complaining about injustice. And like I said, it’s different than when we had to fight to vote, okay? But right now, if you want to be a successful woman, are there going to be challenges? Yeah. But so what? It’s possible, it’s possible. You know. Be a woman and make it happen. Just do what you have to do. I feel like all my friends, my sisters, my mom, my aunts and all the people who I value, they’re brilliant. And are they aware of the fact that things might be a little skewed? Yeah. But it doesn’t make them any less awesome or capable. All these titles are just so useless.
Do you know of Sheryl Sandberg? The woman who wrote Lean In?
Yeah, of course.
She is currently crusading to ban the word “bossy.” Her thought is that men are given the title of “boss,” whereas women who are assertive are described as annoying, pushy, or “bossy.” I’m wondering what you think about that. Your song “Bossy” always felt like it gave empowerment to the word and ownership of the word to women. Not the opposite.
Well that’s the exact point, though. Somewhere along the way, someone confused it and made it seem like for me to be proud of being a woman, I had to be less female, and less girly. It makes no sense. It’s so backwards. All the things that make me awesome are the same things that separate me from masculinity: My femininity, my emotions, my nurturing, mothering nature, my big behind, or whatever you want to call it. Like, these are the things that make me awesome. I’m a woman. If I were a man I could see why you would use it. But I’m not a man. I don’t see why anyone is trying to equate that as a deficit.
I’ve been called way worse than bossy, by the way. There are other words to ban. And I get called stuff on the regular. I mean, is it unfair? Yes. I’ve been saying this forever, before a major person made a campaign. Like, people have called me “bitchy” or whatever. We ban the word “bossy” and then what? How’s that helpful? It’s not helping anything, it’s a waste of time. Such a waste. For me, adding a “y” at the end of the word “boss” doesn’t make it any less effective. I own my records, I have my Masters, I own five businesses single-handedly, I’m very successful. I’m very accomplished. I’m a single mother. I look good. Don’t ban a word, start a girls scholarship or something. Who cares?
Do you still feel defined by “Milkshake” in the pop realm? How do you feel about the song now that it’s so far in the past?
There’s a few things. I do feel a general sort of separation from old records of mine just because it’s in my nature. You know when you go out to eat and you order something and it’s really good and you totally kill it? Like, the waiter doesn’t come and take that plate away fast enough and you’re just sitting there with a carcass of you were eating. I hate that feeling. I’m like, ‘Take it away.’
I’m kind of similar to that with old albums. I kind of feel like, ‘I’m done. I’m over it. Let’s move on. Don’t just leave it in front of me. It was delicious, thank you so much. Please take it away.’ So with “Milkshake,” I love the song. It’s bright. I know what it meant, I know what it did for music and for female artists in that era. I’m not saying I single-handedly did it, but you know it played a huge part in where music went. I’m aware of that, I don’t regret it or resent it at all, and I’ve found new fun ways to perform it and to do it and make it enjoyable for people. I don’t put too much thought into it.
I saw you tweet about being in the studio with Giorgio Moroder — what’s going on there?
Oh yeah. Well, he is doing an album and he asked me to write for him. So we were working together and we did it yesterday and it’s exciting.
Is there a milestone or ambition that you have that you want to see out before you stop making music?
I have far-exceeded anything that I could possibly imagine in my career and I feel really blessed and really honored to be upheld with such super, super, super, talented people. So that being said, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop, but I dropped out of the race a long time ago, know what I mean? I don’t feel competitive at all. I don’t feel the need to prove myself. I have proved myself far beyond — I could go on forever, you know. I feel really blessed and I feel really grateful. I doubt that I’ll ever not make music anymore, but I don’t feel like I’m running on that rat wheel still.
You seem to be very content.
I have my moments. I have no reason to be anything other than that, I’m really blessed. I think as an adult we make hard decisions that will eventually pay off and I made a lot of decisions in my life. Right now, my responsibilities are to be sane, happy, and blessed. I feel very blessed, I have a child who requires a rational, sane thinker. He deserves that, so I can’t afford to care that much about things that don’t actually deserve caring.