Stylistically, Kelis’s music has been thrillingly all over the map, from skeletal Neptunes neo-soul to hiccupping club jams to woozy hip-hop. Thematically, though, she’s consistently been in our faces, making a name for herself with songs-as-declarations—that she’s bossy, that she had Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s money, that she brings all the boys to the yard. Which makes the artist’s latest reinvention on Food all the more jarring. The album finds her in full, horn-happy soul mode, its loose gastronomic concept framing the sounds of her childhood as the stuff of true sustenance. Kelis and producer Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio take a nuanced retro approach that doesn’t rely solely on vintage sounds: synths burble just under the surface; horn sections are muted and bathed in reverb; unfussy piano runs take center stage. The result is the same kind of expansive optimism that pervaded TV on the Radio’s last album, Nine Types of Light.
It’s not surprising that Kelis would take a leap to a different sandbox. Even though for all of its pleasures, this stylistic shift is rather safe. Her songwriting choices are uncharacteristically passive; she obsesses over her need for fulfillment, yearning for someone to come along and blow her away, when in the past that someone would have been herself. Things get downright apathetic on the slow, cinematic ballad Floyd,” where Kelis becomes a bizarro version of her former self: “Sure, I’m self-sufficient/Blah-blah independent/Truthfully, I’ve got some space/I want that man to fill it.” Her singing rarely ever leaves a mid-octave comfort zone, her voice sounding soft and acquiescent. Inject some awareness of the emotional stakes in that voice, and that “blah-blah independent” phrase might feel completely different.
Over the stellar, midtempo R&B groove of “Rumble,” you start to feel like the singer is getting back some of that old fire. “I’m so glad you gave back the keys,” she croons to a deadbeat ex, the horns buffeting a piano hook that would make Biz Markie flash a toothy grin. It’s a great line, a killer melody, a sign that she has it in her to slay this kind of stuff. So it’s quite a shame when she loses her nerve, and the narrator changes her mind. “Stay the night, baby!” she pleads before the band cuts out, leaving her to flail on the line with the phrase, “Don’t go,” for eight excruciating bars. It’s as if Erykah Badu had ended “Tyrone” with an apology.
If you can forget about how electrifying Kelis can be when she’s feeling confrontational, Food has plenty to offer. Unlike, say, Pharrell’s recent R&B time-traveling, these songs are not breezy, catchy trifles. This is some of Kelis’s subtlest, most organic-sounding work. If only there was more of her in it.