12:19 PM EDT, April 21, 2014
After such hits as the playful "Milkshake" and a trio of albums with producer Pharrell Williams and Neptunes, Kelis experimented with everything from retro soul to electronic dance music with mixed results. Now 34, Kelis Rogers has been making music for half her life, and the last few years of stylistic experimentation have resolved in her focused, long-simmering sixth album, "Food" (Ninja Tune/IRIS).
With its title calling attention to her hosting duties for a Cooking Channel program, "Food" is designed as a feast for the ears, a multicourse reinvention of the sounds that informed the singer's childhood. Her collaborator is TV on the Radio producer Dave Sitek, who gracefully blends old- and new-school influences.
Kelis' voice, a distinctive if not particularly overpowering instrument, is key, with its dark, sultry, sometimes ragged tone. Her emotional honesty overcomes some occasional lapses as a lyricist. If she's not saying anything particularly new or revelatory, the way she delivers her lines gives them resonance.
Just as eating well should be a sensual experience, this album layers its flavors. Tambourines, vocals soaked in gospel and horns wind through "Jerk Ribs," a stirring "welcome to the world" that opens the album. "Breakfast" is all undulating bass lines and counterpoint horns; "Forever Be" juxtaposes pinging keyboards and swooping strings.
There is an urgency in Kelis' voice on "Floyd": "Seems like no one is surprising anymore," she sings. "It's not that I'm ungrateful, just a little bored — I want to be blown away."
Though the tempos don't vary much — the album's most obvious shortcoming — Sitek and Kelis explore the full range of tonal colors within this relatively narrow spectrum. "Cobbler" blends hand claps, Latin percussion and African hi-life horns into a percolating party punctuated by laughter. "Friday Fish Fry" ratchets up the Southern blues humidity. "I need ice-cold water," Kelis cries.
As the album winds down, Kelis' narrator feels adrift, but not for long. "You catch me tomorrow I'll be renewed," she sings on "Biscuits n' Gravy," with horns rising up behind her like a sunrise. Some might call that food for the soul.
3 1/2 (out of 4) stars
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