Casual pop listeners know Kelis as the woman behind "Milkshake," "Bossy," and the unshakable hook to Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money," which kicked off her career in summer 1999. Her more committed fans (and there are a lot of us) hold her to be one of the most unpredictable and inventive R&B artists of the modern era. A couple months ago she released Food (Ninja Tune), the sixth album in a slightly rocky, occasionally very successful, and consistently rewarding career; it's loaded with references to her side hustle as a chef (she trained at Le Cordon Bleu) and her new gig hosting a Cooking Channel show called Saucy & Sweet. In the middle of a busy press day, she took a couple minutes to talk.
Your new album is one of the most joyous records I've heard this year. I was wondering if that was something you intended or just a reflection of where you are right now?
I think it's kind of a combination. For me it's just sort of what came out, and I went with it and didn't fight it. I let it be what it was going to be.
When you work with one producer for a whole album, like Dave Sitek on this one and the Neptunes on your first two, what's the creative process like? How much do you bring in with you and how much is collaboration?
I don't know—I think people use the word "collaboration" so much, it's funny to me. You know, it's two artists getting together and being who they are. I've got my role to play and Dave had his role to play, and we became really great friends over the course of making this record. It's not just about the two people; it's about the time. I don't think I could have made the same album if I started today, whether it was with Dave or not.
I saw you play a warm-up show recently. You were talking about your band, and you alluded to a tour for Flesh Tone where it was just you and a DJ promoting a more dance-oriented record. I want to hear more about what that experience was like.
"I'm supposed to push the envelope and challenge the listener, and I'm expecting people to already be there when I arrive? That doesn't make any sense."
I mean, it was great. My best friend—literally one of my dearest friends in the world—is my DJ, so we had a great time. I'd never been out without a band and that was definitely a new experience, but that was only for the first couple of shows. Then you kind of get into it and realize that it's really not different. It was exactly what I wanted to do, to make people dance and sweat it out, and it was fun. Dance music is at higher BPMs, so it's like a workout every night. I was in great shape by the end of it. This record's really different. I can kind of sit down on a stool and breathe it out. I probably won't be in as great shape by the end of this tour as that one. I was ripped. I looked awesome.
Food reminds me of a lot of old 70s soul, but live I noticed different things in those songs, like how much the horns sound like Fela. I was wondering if there was anything in particular you were trying to emulate with the record.
Live is live. It always speaks for itself. But I think, for me, I'm not as contrived as people assume—with everything I do, honestly. I think when you really understand something you don't have to think about it anymore, and you allow it to be what it's gonna be. If you have a knowledge of fashion, you buy what you like, and some days it looks more like this and some days it looks more like this. If you're a chef—I know how to cook, I know what makes sense, I don't have to overthink how to create something delicious. I understand music—I understand the notes, the progressions, the crescendos, and all of these things, and it's like I don't have to think about any of it. I do it. It's funny; in culinary school one of my chefs used to tell us, "Don't manhandle." It's true. Don't overthink it. Stop messing around. People overthink things. They mush things around too much, and then it just looks gross.
I feel like R&B is overall in a much different place than it was when you first came on. In the 90s it had become very formulaic and commercial, but by the end you and a few other artists like Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott, and Aaliyah had kicked the door open for a more experimental approach. Now you have all sorts of artists, like the Weeknd and Solange, making a kind of "alternative" R&B. Do you feel like you're at least partly responsible for that?
To be honest with you—I don't know, maybe I'm jaded, which is not shocking, but I feel less excited by the new stuff overall. There's some stuff I enjoy, but for the most part I don't feel like people are pushing it as far or as wonderfully as they could. I feel like it's taken a long time to even get to this point, and it's like, Really? This is all you can come up with? I think everything's gotten very sanitized, and it's kind of a reflection of something real. And that's a generalization. I don't actually hate everything. But I don't think about myself like, "Oh, I did this." But it's a nice thought. I hope that something that I've done has been inspiring to someone coming after.
The first time I heard you was when "Got Your Money" came out. I was on tour with a punk band at the time, and we got obsessed with that song and freaked out every time it came on the radio. I wanted Kaleidoscope to be the biggest record, and between the reception it got and the fact that your second album, Wanderland, didn't even get released in the U.S., I was really disappointed that no one else was getting on board. It seemed like the label or the audience or someone didn't know what to do with that momentum you'd generated.
It depends on your perspective. For me, I feel like it's always been strong. I'm sitting and talking with you 16 years later because it was strong. It wasn't really about what label got me or didn't get me. I was making what I was making, and the people who were meant to hear it did. I've got my sixth album out and a massive body of work, and I don't feel like there are many female artists in my genre who can say that. I'm an artist. I can't be forward-thinking and expect people who are not artists to be where I'm at. That would be asinine. I'm supposed to push the envelope and challenge the listener, and I'm expecting people to already be there when I arrive? That doesn't make any sense. I think that the evidence of how viable I've been is that I'm still here. I couldn't measure my success by who got me right away. For me the experience has been exactly as it should be. I wouldn't change a single thing.