Published Apr 15, 2014To hear Kelis tell it, rolling into South By Southwest in a food truck smothered in the sounds and images of new album Food and stocked full of gourmet dishes (duck confit sliders with ginger sesame glaze, jerk BBQ goat ribs and shredded beef sliders with cherry BBQ sauce) for hungry folks in Austin this year wasn't so much a promo stunt, as a declaration of who she is right now as both a superstar singer and certified chef. By smashing up her two favourite arts — culinary and musical — people came for the food, but they stayed for the vibes.
"It just felt like the right thing to do. I've been doing a lot of food and wine festivals lately, anyway — it was like, yeah, why not?" she says in her inimitably husky voice. "They are both creative and take your thought process to another level. You can really express yourself with them. But quite frankly, I didn't even see the parallels until journalists started asking me about it. Only then, I started to think about the parallels."
Food arrives at a time when the "alternative" R&B singer-songwriter finds herself divorced (from hip-hop star Nas), a single mother of young son Knight, host of a television cooking show, Saucy & Sweet with Kelis, and a businesswoman with a bunch of food-related projects in the pipeline. "I love my album. I think that it's really poignant and where I'm at in my life."
Being emotionally impetuous likely describes Kelis at various moments in her life and 17-year musical career. Born Kelis Rogers in Harlem to a black Pentecostal preacher and Puerto Rican/Chinese fashion designer, she was kicked out of the house at the age of 16 for being strong-willed and not getting along with her mother. On her own, she attended Manhattan's Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts by day, working in a clothing store and bartending in the evenings. Having grown up singing in the church choir, and learning to play violin and piano, her passion for music led her to form an R&B girl group, BLU, with classmates.
It was a friend who introduced her to Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the then-emerging production team known as the Neptunes. Williams helped her land a record deal with Virgin Records and was the driving force, along with Hugo, behind 1999 debut Kaleidoscope and the hit "Caught Out There," featuring the signature scream "I hate you so much right now!" "Caught Out There" was a solid first effort, but second and third singles "Good Stuff" and the underrated "Get Along With You" suffered diminishing returns.
Her 2001 follow-up, Wanderland, was critically lauded but poorly supported by Virgin Records, although it had success overseas. It was on 2003's Tasty that Kelis and the Neptunes would regain their winning form, and off the strength of massive hit single "Milkshake," Kelis enjoyed huge success once again.
Her first outing without the Neptunes was the Grammy-nominated Kelis Was Here in 2006, featuring hit single "Bossy." It was around this time that Kelis and hip-hop's Nasir Jones would marry, after a courtship that started in 2002. It would be a reportedly tumultuous relationship fraught with alleged infidelities, culminating in a 2010 divorce court order for Nas to pay Kelis child and spousal support. It was a learning experience, she says, and one that she has moved on from. Even when her green wedding dress and relationship fallout was so prominently featured as fodder on her ex-husband's Life Is Good album in 2012, she kept it moving. She talks about it freely, but it's clear she moved on from that part of her life, save for her son Knight.
Unlike her previous, more processed projects, Food is organically grown; it reflects the mature and positive mindset that she has in her life. This first album for Ninja Tune was produced by TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek and serves up soul, funk and Afrobeat flavours under soul food-themed titles such as "Cobbler," "Biscuits n' Gravy," and first single "Jerk Ribs." Kelis worked with the rock-oriented Sitek and trumpeter/arranger Todd M. Simon to craft vintage soul-pop that could be termed retro with a modern feel. "For me, the span between each record is usually three or four years," she says. "I make no attempt to rush the situation. This particular body of work took no time. Me and Dave, we were done in the span of a couple of months."
While her milkshake brought all the boys to the yard, Food feels more substantial, a bit more filling. Long lumped into the urban/R&B/dance box for simplicity's sake, her current sound draws from a range of influences — soul, pop, gospel, jazz — and Food blends these sounds through a retro filter. "I wanted to do something different. It was conscious and not conscious, in that I think it really just flowed out. If I'm not a little bit nervous when I think an album is done, I don't think that I've done my job. That's my scale of success. For me, this album is already successful, and that's without even one person buying a copy. I'm a winner, I have a victory — I did what I set out to do. It's a little nerve-wracking to have people hear me in a way they haven't heard me before, but to me, it's already a massive success."
And compared to her early Neptunes-produced albums, there is a sense of artistic freedom in Food, she says. Today, Kelis doesn't speak of that earlier period in glowing terms. "There were tonnes of lessons learned," she says. "I think that there is a sense of integrity that I've maintained from then to now.
"I wouldn't compare [recording experiences] because Dave is awesome," she continues. "Dave doesn't feel the need to suffocate with his creativity and allows me to be creative and comfortable and brilliant," she adds. "So you end up having this thing where there is respect. You're able to really work together, where every idea feeds another idea. And every moment creates another moment. That's rare. Anyone who is really genuinely happy in their creativity, they aren't imposing. That don't need to impress their creativity on someone else because it is yours. Dave is brilliant and creative and he knows that," she says.
As for fitting in to any genre box — the "being R&B" question — "I don't know if I was ever R&B; I don't know if I wasn't," she muses. "I never had to define anything, because people were going to do it for me whether I said it or not. I'm a musician, I'm a songwriter, I'm a woman — I'm a lot of things. Whether they call it R&B, electro, alternative, old school, I don't really care. I understand why people do it and I don't have a problem with it. I just personally don't feel the need to do it for myself. Is it challenging? I don't know. I guess. I have no idea. It has no bearing on what it is I actually create. It's not about being artistically daring, it just that it's not worth it if you are not. The goal is to create something, and I'm not creating something if I'm duplicating something that I already did. For me, it's really simple like that and about just being honest about who you are right now. Deciding how much you care and going from there."
A self-described foodie, in 2006 Kelis attended Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in New York to become a chef. She graduated last year as a certified saucier, and was able to parlay her epicurean talents into her show on the Cooking Channel in the U.S. She's also launched Feast, a product line of French sauces. Food and music represent passionate and creative sides of her personality, she says — she wouldn't choose one over the other.
These days, she realizes that life happens and things always fall into place. From Food to food, everything Kelis has cooking right now is the best life — and one she's made for herself. "Everything isn't perfect all the time, but everything is good," she offers, adding "people don't put enough stock in good."
Not a megastar — she never aspired to be, she notes — Kelis is comfortable at a level of fame just simmering on the back burner. A spiritual, musical satiety of sorts.
"I give it all to God," she says. "I'm a Christian. And when I say I give it to God, I really do. You can't just say it, you have to actually do it. I give it to the Lord. I gave it up, I gave it away — it's no longer my problem or my responsibility. It leaves me open to be creative, to be a good mom. The world didn't give me my joy and it can't take it. What I do and what I don't have or could have, it doesn't matter. I'm a mother and this little human being relies on me to be sane and to be calm, so whatever it takes for me to be that, I will be that.
"Where I am is where I'm supposed to be," she continues. "I live my life according to certain guidelines so it doesn't matter what the outcome is because I'm good regardless. I made adult, hard decisions to be a better human being, in order to provide a life for my child that's worthy of him. And I have no regrets and no apologies. I'm highly favoured, and my life is not perfect but it's great. I wouldn't change anything for the world. You win some, you lose some, and if you made it out the other side, you won."