Kelis’s Comeback: The R&B Diva on New Album ‘Food,’ Legacy of ‘Milkshake,’ and the Nas Split
Its gyrating beat, a contagious mélange of darbuka and manjira, complemented by coquettish purring, signaled the arrival of The Plastics—Regina George’s gang of reputation-ruining disciples—in the seminal teen flick Mean Girls.
I’m talking, of course, about Kelis’s “Milkshake.”
Produced by knob-twirling wizzes The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams & Chad Hugo), the dance-inducing tune also introduced many music aficionados to an exciting voice in pop and R&B.
“I love that movie. It’s such a cult classic now,” Kelis says of Mean Girls. “Here’s what’s really funny: ‘Milkshake’ is in so many things, from Family Guy to Orange is the New Black to Dodgeball. The list really goes on with hilarious moments for that song. I’m just tickled by the whole thing.”
That addictive ditty, which Kelis calls “a pivotal moment for R&B and hip-hop” since it came at a time when “things were very croon-y,” exploded into the public consciousness over a decade ago. Since then, the Harlem native’s career has seen more abrupt transitions than a multi-camera sitcom. She was dropped from Jive Records in 2007; acquitted after a bizarre Miami arrest where she was alleged to have shouted profanities at cops posing as prostitutes; an aborted dance album with production by Cee-Lo Green and Calvin Harris; graduating from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school; and her marriage (and divorce) to Nas.
With all that drama firmly in her rearview, Kelis seems to be in a much better place.
“Honestly, I remember being a little girl and my mom always telling me, Your twenties are cool, but when you’re in your thirties, you will feel the wisest and sexiest. You will be you, and you’ll know it. I’m 34 now, and I feel really great. I feel really at peace with my life and myself, and I think that comes across on the record. My two feet have finally landed on the ground.”
She has reason to be. The album in question is Food, an inventive gastronomy-themed blend of afropop, soul, and R&B, replete with a steady dose of brass and balladry. Sounding like a mix of Solange and Dirty Projectors, her fifth studio album features production by Dave Sitek, the bespectacled TV on the Radio guitarist who’s mixed albums for everyone from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Scarlett Johansson. It is far and away her finest musical concoction to date.
The singer-producer duo met through mutual friends about two years ago in L.A. and, after a long, winding conversation about music, agreed to get in the studio and record together for a few days. That few days turned into 14 weeks of cooking, eating, writing, and recording.
“There’s no separation between food and music for me,” says Kelis. “At any good party there’s always good food and music, and during the recording, I was cooking and Dave was cooking. My jerk ribs was the biggest hit.”
She adds, “I’m excited by sounds and instruments. I had bagpipes and cellos on Tasty. With Food, I wasn’t aiming to be experimental, but while we were recording we’d just try our horn sections and strings on tracks and everything came about organically.”
Tasty, released back in 2003 and featuring the immortal “Milkshake—along with an album cover flaunting a big red hickie—ended up being Kelis’s biggest hit, but she’d been around for quite some time by then.
Born Kelis Rogers—her name a portmanteau of her African-American father, Kenneth, and Puerto Rican-Chinese mother, Eveliss—and raised in Harlem, New York, she gravitated to music from a very early age thanks in large part to her father, a jazz musician and Pentecostal minister who receives a shout-out on Food’s first single “Jerk Ribs.”
“Music was such a huge part of my upbringing,” she says. “I didn’t really choose it, it chose me. My father was always writing and recording music, and my sisters were a bit tone-deaf, so my father singled me out and we’d have a lot of conversations about music and would write together.”
She sang in church choirs and was trained in a variety of instruments, including piano, violin, and saxophone, before attending Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, where she studied drama. There, she formed BLU (Black Ladies United)—an R&B trio—and, after clashing with her parents, moved out of the family apartment at 16, the summer before entering her senior year of high school.
“I’m a New Yorker so I’d been working since I was 12,” says Kelis. “At the time, I was working in two restaurants—Monaco and E.J.’s Luncheonette—and I also had a retail job at Variazioni. I’d always looked older, and I just found an apartment and lived on my own.”
Around that time, she hooked up with The Neptunes through a mutual friend, who helped her land a record deal at 17, right after she graduated high school.
The albums Kaleidoscope (1999) and Wanderland (2001) followed. Both were moderate, Neptunes-produced hits—and then Tasty happened. On the strength of the Grammy nominated “Milkshake,” along with a few other choice cuts featuring the likes of Andre 3000, Nas, and Raphael Saadiq, the album reached gold status in the U.S. and went platinum in the U.K.
Following her fourth album, Kelis Was Here—her first sans The Neptunes—she was dropped by her label, Jive, in late 2007.
“The point that people forget is that the music industry started to crumble, and everything started to change,” she says. “I was signed to Arista and when it folded, all the artists had to go somewhere, and I ended up on a label, Jive, that would have never signed me, and that I would have never signed to. I didn’t really fit there—they knew it, I knew it—and we had to work together. And when that happened, Kelis Was Here had just come out, so it was a particularly bad time for the shift.”
She pauses. “It was a mess and just exhausting, so I wanted to take a break. And I’d been signed since I was 17, so for ten years straight I’d been on a label. It was the first time I had time.”
So Kelis turned to her other passion: food. She followed in the footsteps of her mother—who ran a catering business—by enrolling in Le Cordon Bleu where she trained as a saucier, and later worked at the Los Angeles restaurants Canelé and Ritual Supper Club, where she did a lot of sautéing.
“I think everything is about sauce… chicken is just chicken,” she says. “I always say ‘I like all the extras in life,’ and even when you look at fashion, it’s the extras that define a person’s look. A black dress is a black dress, but it’s about the jewelry, the bag, and the shoes—that’s what tells you who a person is. I think it’s the same with food.”
Since graduating, she’s unveiled a line of sauces, called Feast, and hosted a cooking special, Saucy & Sweet, on the Cooking Channel. Recently, she unveiled her own food truck down at SXSW with a menu of jerk ribs, shredded flank steak with wild cherry barbecue sauces, and duck confit sliders with a ginger-sesame glaze. She says she plans on breaking out the food truck again, but would “love to have a restaurants” and “sauce would be the cornerstone of it.”
Her ex Nas, whom she married in 2005 and divorced (while seven months pregnant) in 2009, recently made headlines when he posed with the green slip to her wedding dress on the cover of his album Life is Good. The pair split following rumors of infidelity on Nas’s part, including a tweet from the singer Maxwell featuring him and Nas posing with a bevy of scantily-clad groupies.
“I don’t even remember what Maxwell said, I just remember that I got apology texts from both of them,” she says matter-of-factly. “But it was what it is, and that was five years ago. Me and Nas have a child together, so we talk all the time. I don’t think divorce is ever fun, but I think it was all the media’s fault, because I’ve never really spoken about it.”
As far as the future goes, Kelis has her hands full with touring in support of Food, pursuing her restaurant dreams, and raising the former couple’s four-year-old son, Knight.
“When I think about my life,” she says, “it’s always been about food and music.”