Count on hip-hop to provide leaks for strangeness to seep through the mainstream media dam. When Missy Elliott releases a single, it’s usually the weirdest thing on the radio. But right now, that distinction goes to Kelis, a Harlem-raised singer who found herself cast as the Neptunes’ answer to Alanis Morissette as she screamed “I hate you so much right now” for her debut single, “Caught Out There,” and has recently been freakifying airwaves with “Milkshake” off her third album, Tasty. Her confrontational debut came in 1999, when American radio wasn’t ready for a freaky black chick who made scrubs-bashers seem meek. Nevertheless, Kelis racked up hits and awards in the U.K. But even though she concurrently and subsequently appeared on hits and club jams by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Timo Maas, Richard X, OutKast, Guru, Beenie Man, P-Diddy, and other popular thugs, her second album, 2001’s Wanderland, was yanked from American release.
The song of the moment, “Milkshake,” generates a compact three-minute blast of noise and chant that’s recognizably Neptunes-constructed, yet with a huh? factor much higher than in their previous radio monsters. The main riff is pure techno, a slower version of the synth farts that blew up early-’90s rave anthems. As with “Anasthasia,” “Dominator,” and those other Hoover-ing techno classics, “Milkshake” goes places it melodically shouldn’t, creating dissonance and general unease even as its finger cymbals seduce. As a female-fronted record with hip-hop origins, “Milkshake” is of course about sex, but it brings back euphemism in a big way. Like the Village People with their own milkshake song in Can’t Stop the Music, Kelis is clearly singing about something stronger than a dairy drink, but what? The way she struts her stuff? Her blowjob technique? Or simply her inner glow?
Like the Neptunes’ Pharrell, Kelis has few notes at her disposal, but she’s got a presence that backs up her mysterious boasts. She’s a smart singer who, instead of over-emoting, sounds as if she knows something you don’t but should. Only five of Tasty‘s treats are Neptunes-assisted, and although some others might as well have been, the three soul-cruising cuts recorded with Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman Raphael Saadiq prove she can hang with more than hooks and machine beats. Her strongest suit remains an African American impression of punk—what Debbie Harry did with rap and disco, but in reverse. Kelis is the blondie with blacker roots.