“I know I don’t look it, but I can really cook,” Kelis Rogers sings on “Floyd,” a breathy old-school slow jam on her new album. As advertised, the song really does cook, placing her throaty vocals on a bed of Philly soul strings and horns. But Kelis means “cook” very literally, too. Over the past decade, she has trained as a saucier, written her own cookbook, graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, and landed a cooking show called Saucy & Sweet on the Cooking Channel. To promote Food, her first album in four years and her first for Ninja Tune Records, she served gourmet meals from her food truck at SXSW.
Food is only a loose theme on Food, which features songs called “Breakfast,” “Biscuits n Gravy” and “Backyard Barbecue.” Cuisine is a useful metaphor for pretty much any topic Kelis wants to sing about, whether it’s sexual desire, romantic reassurance or professional concerns. “Give me what I want, give me what I need,” she sings on “Friday Fish Fry.” “I’m begging you please, I’m down on my knees.” Must be one incredible recipe.
In the four years since her previous album, the excellent and adventurous Flesh Tone, Kelis has recorded a full-album with a handful of British DJs producing, yet that album was eventually shelved following a few disputes among them. You can almost hear the frustration in her voice, which has grown raspier and hoarser in the last few years. Instead of distracting, that odd grain only intensifies the desperation of “Runnin’” and the easy contentment of the gorgeous “Bless the Telephone,” originally by British folk singer Labi Siffre.
Always an adventurous and unpredictable artist whose ranges extends well beyond R&B, Kelis has always been a critics’ favorite, yet she’s never really had a commercial breakthrough, unless you count the one-off novelty hit “Milkshake” back in 2003. Perhaps that’s the reason she brought in TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek to produce. If it seems like an intriguing partnership, it quickly curdles. He tries to craft a light and airy sound, but it too often sounds flat, awkward and fussily self-impressed. “Cobbler” jumbles its chockablock layer of percussion, horns and vocals, strangling the groove of any immediacy. His retro-R&B flourishes on “Floyd” and his kitschy exotica trappings on “Change” just sound cutesy, undermining the gravity of Kelis’ vocals.
Even if she’s not as abrasive as she once was—her scream-therapy first single, “Caught Out There,” contained the memorable chorus “I hate you so much right now!”—Kelis still presides over these songs with an edgy, headstrong charisma. Food may not make her the star she deserves to be, but this slightly overcooked album is proof that she can cook.