The Kelis we’ve known, as pop followers and fans, is dead. The perennial almost, the ice queen with as many misses as hits, the firebrand mostly remembered for her few charting clunky club-raps (or clubby clunk-raps), is long gone. You may have already assumed so, given that she dropped out of pop music nigh five years ago to pursue some kind of real life—husband (Nas), baby, coursework at the Cordon Bleu—leaving behind the not-inconsiderable legacy of “Milkshake.” Her last known address, 2006’s “Bossy,” had a longer shelf-life as a ringtone and battle cry for impudent tweens everywhere than it did on the radio. But even in those flashes of mainstream acceptance, she was always an anomaly, with her staccato sing-song delivery that made everything sound like a taunt. She did not fit either existing archetype for women in hip-hop, being both serious and sexy; she was more of a bitch’s bitch, with money and sex and power all tangled up. Manipulation was her lifestyle.
With her new Flesh Tone, then, what we get isn’t a reintroduction—it’s something just shy of a whole-cloth reinvention. Like another soulful single mom before her, Dusty Springfield, she sings of being brand-new. Literally. “Now I’m brand-new/Rename me/Baby, claim me/I been changed, see?” she sings on “4th of July.” This serves as Kelis’s rebirth announcement, blooming into the heart-bursting flower of new motherhood, her Technicolor toughness traded out for gold-flake disco-diva transcendence. While her music has always slouched toward the club, this is unabashedly a dance record, packed with contemporary, high-gloss house and techno via producers like Ibiza foam-party king David Guetta playing the Giorgio Moroder to her Donna Summer. The big diff is that this time the love-to-love-you-baby is an actual infant.
The result makes apparent that after years of foundering and being too outré for rap (oh, the pre-M.I.A./Rihanna days when “kooky pop diva” wasn’t so much a paying position), Kelis should’ve turned diva long ago. With her husky voice and will-to-survive trope, she’s a natural, sounding more relaxed and real than she ever has before. The big surprise isn’t how far her new, fabulous world of synthetic, revving rave is from the old her, but what isn’t here. Flesh Tone has break-up album overtones, but no discernible bitterness—not exactly what you’d expect given that, at the time of recording, she was six months’ pregnant and enduring ever-messier divorce proceedings from her husband—a battle that put her name back in headlines for the first time in years. Laser bass and love-lights a-shining aren’t what you expect from a mid-divorce, mid-career artist, let alone from this one.
In recent interviews, Kelis has insisted that she returned to the studio and made Flesh Tone to support herself and her son. That determination is significant—and audible—throughout. On “Brave,” she credits her baby for saving her. On the previous song, “Emancipate,” she’s doling out lessons in self-help, demanding, “Emancipate yourself!” again and again. But on the bridge, she switches to first-person—”Like the phoenix from the ashes/Sunrise off in the distance/I’ll try again/I’ll try again”—and it’s clear she’s pep-talking herself more than anyone. Her comeback isn’t just professional, it’s personal—she’s demanding it of herself. These songs, for all their Top 40 disco glitter (will.i.am. signed her to his label and executive-produces here), compel with their tradeoffs between vulnerability and euphoria, though if you aren’t paying attention, they’re slick enough to pass as merely exceptional pop-radio or club-floor fodder. The experiences she sings about, and how she sings about them, enter her in a rarefied though slim canon of diva-motherhood types—slotting her between Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, and Björk, where she rightly belongs.
The album’s best track, “Song for the Baby,” is a heartbreaker, an open letter to her son built on a pouncing piano and warm horn sample that sounds lifted off a Chicago album and sifted through a Daft Punk–ifier. When she sings, “I’ll never sugarcoat any life lessons for you/’Cause I wanna make you equipped for the best/And I can’t always be here to rescue you when life gets crazy/But I love you more than you’ll ever know,” she sounds earnest and emotional, proving that this new Kelis is a product of personal evolution, not (pop) market-ready positioning, as some detractors have suggested. Such tender-hearted confidences are seemingly at odds with the radio-ready rave backing here, but it’s easy to imagine Kelis strapped with a Baby Bjorn, cooing these same lines to the new (little) man in her life.
Kelis plays the Music Hall of Williamsburg July 28