Kelis - Food

by Matthew Graham

Back in 2010, with the release of the electronica romp, Flesh Tone, Kelis began to follow the path of her peers in the R&B/Pop world by ditching her established style and instead opting for songs compatible with dance-heavy pop charts. Her collaboration with Calvin Harris in 2011, Bounce, made this new direction look set to continue.

However, 2014’s offering, Food, sees Kelis veer towards yet another musical style that is neither like her early R&B days, nor her more recent electronica hits. Instead, the album presents a far more mellow and soulful sound, and Kelis appears to have matured both artistically and vocally. The selection of tracks are more settled and less playful and cheeky than before, giving the album a comfortable and safe quality. Yet I don’t feel that this was the best decision for Kelis. In all honesty, Food is a little self-indulgent and actually comes across as quite boring. Her husky vocals suit this style of record, don’t get me wrong, but without the real diva power behind them they become rather understated. While I applaud Kelis for taking risks and experimenting with her artistry, I feel that Food, unfortunately, falls short of the success she has achieved previously.

The slick trumpets and grinding, woody percussion of Jerk Ribs opens the album in a promising way. Lyrically, this song establishes the nostalgic, homely vibes that heavily influence Food’s sound. Furthermore, Breakfast’s chorus is probably the best on Food, bringing a gorgeous, sunny feel-good factor while Forever Be struts in with an air of undeniable sassiness. But after these tracks, Food burns out, with the best songs having been placed at the very beginning of the album, leaving the rest to plod on sluggishly. While the album as a whole is well crafted, the style just feels a little dated and that’s the main problem: Food is ten years too late.

Kelis reduces the tempo down to a simmer by the time we reach Floyd. Her vapid demand of “I want to be blown away” doesn’t fit in with the song’s sound and leaves a lot to be desired. While it is pleasing enough, I felt it was more suited to background music than a fully fledged album track. Likewise, Runner ironically trundles along at a walking pace, but it is more emotionally involved than Floyd as we see Kelis’ vocals pick up, adding a dash more colouring to the song. The smooth, bluesy brass featured in Hooch provides a moment of much needed sophistication. Yet this style is repeated in Cobbler with more gusto, creating a contemporary and cool alternative. Its jumpy percussion also blends nicely with the trumpet sections. Indeed, Kelis’ vocals become more animated on this track with far more movement in her vocal range.

Her cover of Labi Siffre’s Bless The Telephone stands out on the album as the only gentle, folk infused track, swapping blues sections for plucked guitar melodies. However she keeps the mellow, smoky vocals that are consistent with the rest of Food. Friday Fish Fry rocks up the tempo out of the blue with Western-sounding guitar riffs in a rockabilly style. I imagine this track will be the showstopper during live performances as it provides the oomph that Food desperately needs. Indeed, the latter portion of the album is where Kelis experiments a little more with the sonic space she creates. Change is a lot darker than the rest with its jungle-inspired backdrop. I felt that this was where Kelis really powered through her vocals, transforming into an Amazonian Warrior for a brief period, and exposing the full extent of her soulful voice.

Rumble’s bouncy keys move things along in a hazy New York vibe, but yet again the track lacks the real kick that it really needs in order to stand out. The instrumental simplicity of Biscuits ‘N’ Gravy allows Kelis to show off her voice’s warm timbre as it plays up and down the notes. But the song feels a little too basic; with the gentle tapping of high-hats being a tad repetitive, the track becomes a bit of a soggy mush by the end. Dreamer brings the album to a close in the form of a wishy-washy ballad that attempts to become bigger than it actually is; it’s easily the worst track on the album.

As a whole, Food is pleasant enough. Its cosy consistency shows the crafting that has evidently gone into it, and there are rare moments where it really sparkles, especially towards the beginning. But the stylistic departure from both the slick R&B and pounding electronic styles Kelis has ventured into makes me think only really hardcore fans will like this album. I have to admit that the majority of Food isn’t really for me, the main issue being that she appears to have lost the youthful appeal her older material had. Having said this, if bluesy soul is your bag then you will probably like this album.