opinion byPETER TABAKIS
Earlier last month, Kelis Rogers opened her debut SXSW gig with a rendition of “Feeling Good.” Augmented with a bright horn section and a pair of background singers, her take was a stirring, if minor, facsimile of the classic. This is no slight to Kelis as a live performer, nor to her instrument, a deep and sultry mezzo. “Feeling Good” belongs to one artist, and since the 1965 album I Put a Spell on You, that artist has been Nina Simone. But as a programming choice, the song acted as an exhilarating salvo, brazenly self-conscious. It was a nod to the joy that follows a change in direction, in this case a striking shift in musical style. If any of this was lost on the Austin crowd, Kelis made her point clear by later adding snippets of “Feeling Good” to the material from Food, her sixth and finest LP.
Fans of Kelis’ previous idiosyncratic forays may be surprised to find little contemporary R&B on Food. Those partial to the futuristic electro-pop of 2010’s Flesh Tone, in particular, may even be disappointed. Her new album is, instead, a feast of sweaty funk grooves and impeccable soul melodies. With the help of producer Dave Sitek (of TV on the Radio), familiar sounds are frequently renewed and made dazzling. This classicist revamp is hardly a risky move in 2014. Food arrives on the heels of Daft Punk’s triumphant Grammy coup, which amounted to a victory lap for nostalgia on the pop charts. But Kelis’ ambitions are far less grandiose, placing the album somewhere in between recent works by Sharon Jones (on the formalist end) and Janelle Monáe (at the weirder extreme).
Its misleading title notwithstanding, Food isn’t a gastronomic concept record. (Kelis rarely references edibles in her lyrics.) And despite some seemingly ridiculous names – such as “Jerk Ribs,” “Biscuits n’ Gravy,” “Friday Fish Fry,” and “Breakfast” – these songs don’t aim for laughs. In other words, we can brush aside comparisons to Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman. Kelis happens to be both a Le Cordon Bleu trained saucier and the host of a Cooking Channel show. She understands a meal provides more than sustenance for the body. It can be sensual and soulful, a portal to a specific time and place, a stimulant for the subconscious.
I’m reminded of a scene from Pixar’s culinary masterpiece Ratatouille,which fully dramatizes the power of taste-sensation. Late in the movie, a bite of the titular dish returns a miserable restaurant critic to his youth. He is instantly transported through time to the comfort of his mother’s kitchen. A forkful of expertly prepared vegetables changes him – tastehumanizes and, ultimately, redeems him. When Kelis sings of jerk ribs, her subject isn’t Caribbean cuisine: she is recalling the wisdom handed down by her jazz-musician father (“He said to look for melody in everything”). Biscuits with gravy are dashed childhood ambitions (“I'm standing in the middle of some other person’s life”). Fried fish become a representation of the singer’s libido (“I need ice-cold water!”). The prospect of a meal is a prize waved in front of a lover, if she hasn’t yet kicked him from her bed (“Maybe we’ll make it to breakfast”).
Food is consistently satisfying and often fabulous. Its lesser ingredients (“Cobbler,” “Floyd,” and “Dreamer”) may distract, but only mildly, from what is some of the best work of Kelis’ career. The album abounds with engrossing hooks and vivid instrumental arrangements. Case in point: the Technicolor brio of “Jerk Ribs” and “Breakfast,” Food’s opening duo. “Rumble” lopes atop a lithe piano lick and then dances alongside a fat chorus. A couple of mid-tempo ballads (“Runnin’” and “Bless the Telephone”) and a superb torch song (“Biscuits n’ Gravy”) sneak some very real emotional heft into the routinely upbeat Food. “Friday Fish Fry,” a euphoric rave-up that features a call-and-response breakdown, surges with carnal electricity. For my money, it’s Kelis’ sexiest and most indelible song since “Bossy.”
Though she’s no stranger to the Billboard charts, Kelis exists in fame’s outer reaches. And aside from her universally beloved single “Milkshake,” she has yet to receive a wholehearted embrace from critics. It took sixteen years for her, an artist with a solid best-of compilation already under her belt, to reach firm creative footing. Newfound commercial success may or may not follow. Either way, Kelis’ late arrival deserves celebration – and her Food, relish. B+