Sir Issac Newton’s first law of motion succinctly says that an object in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by an external force. Since the public announcement of her divorce from rapper Nas, Pop-Soul provocateur Kelis has too been an object in motion. However, her activity has involved spiraling up and down in a strange, charmed and sometimes highly unfortunate life defined by a plethora of circumstances. However, with the release of sixth studio album Food, the object in motion is now an object at rest, and the result—while not anything near what we’ve come to expect—is ultimately what it feels as though Kelis herself needed to refocus herself as an artist, mother and woman.
Jangly, soul-stirrer “Jerk Ribs” kicks off the album and is being promoted as the lead single. Stripped of the EDM histrionics of progressive 2010 release Flesh Tone and the futuristic boom-bap of the Neptunes (“Caught Out There” and “Milkshake,” from 1998’s Kaleidoscope and 2003’s Tasty) or Bangladesh’s southern crunk (“Bossy” from 2006’s Kelis Was Here) that have buoyed some of her best-regarded career moments, Kelis’ vocal performance is comforting and enjoyable. Allowing her voice to settle into non-electrified grooves is what disarms about this album at first listen. Yes, Kelis is always a groundbreaker, but it’s always been as much for the beats that she chooses as for her choice in fashion or statement. This time, the ground isn’t so much broken as it’s settled into, a seed being nestled in fresh soil and attended to with care.
Food is executive produced by Dave Sitek from OG hipster Rock icons TV on the Radio. Thirteen years into a career as a band where they have run the gamut from Post-Punk to Soul and worked with everyone from David Bowie to the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, understanding Kelis’ desire to make a straight up Soul album was certainly up his alley. Whether the choice to name six of the album’s 13 tracks after comfort food and drink (aside from “Jerk Ribs,” there’s “Cobbler,” “Biscuits and Gravy” and “Hooch”) or meals (specifically “Friday Fish Fry” and “Breakfast”) was up to him, the ameliorative effect of Sitek’s veteran hand at the wheel has its fingerprints all over the album in the best way possible.
“Change” opens with the stentorian feel of a horn blast similar to the arrival of a bullfighter into the arena. Dodging the bullish horns of a love once had (“Should I forgive him / Oh no, don’t let it grow like poison”) re-appearing in her life, the song’s measured, yet undulating bassline represents a rare moment when this album gets anything more than emotive and reflective. The Rap fan in all of us would listen to that line (and so many more here) and take them as meaningless 10% disses at Nasir Jones. However, there’s a woman finally regaining control of her creative voice and personal humanity recording this album, and that’s quite the feat. That process requiring the release of some lovelorn inhibitions certainly must be expected and respected, too.
The album has two highlights that bear significant mention. The voice of Kelis’ son Knight Jones appears on ”Breakfast,” an ode from the vocalist to what appears to be “[someone] who taught her how to love.” Four years ago, Flesh Tone’s “Acapella” spoke to how alone she was in life before her son was born, and now, four years later, “when she swears she’s all alone, [her new love] is the one who carries [her].” That evolution of her life is wonderful and damned near tear-jerking. The change in mood from David Guetta’s hard electro to Sitek’s understated two-stepping percussive backing beat making the meaning hit with much greater emotional impact.
Near the end of the album, Kelis’ cover of well-respected British singer-songwriter Labi Siffre’s 2006 released song “Bless the Telephone” finds its greatest strength in owing more to Simon and Garfunkel than Hugo and Williams (aka Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams, the Neptunes). When an object in motion has been in as much motion as Kelis has been in the past four years, finding rest in soulful vibes and plaintive melodies, an album that invites rest for the artist as much as it does the listener is a welcomed, intriguing and appreciated listen.