Is there a more frustrating figure in the contemporary R&B scene than Kelis? She’s released a clutch of killer songs, including ‘Caught Out There’, ‘Milkshake’, ‘Bossy’, and arguably ‘Acapella’ from this, her fifth studio album to date. By now, Kelis should be a globe-straddling pop superstar, and while she has enjoyed a decent amount of hits (albeit, all of them eclipsed by the nova-like ‘Milkshake’), there’s always something missing from the finished product, something that stops her from blazing into the rarefied territory occupied by the biggest stars. She’s a singer who pioneered a slightly off-kilter brand of R&B infused pop, both in image and sound, but has been thoroughly eclipsed by people (Lady Gaga, Rihanna) who have enjoyed huge mainstream success with work that is clearly indebted to the space Kelis was mapping out for herself in the early Noughties.
As such, it’s perhaps not surprising that a four-year gap has stretched out between Kelis’s last album, Kelis Was Here, and Flesh Tone, although her sizable list of personal problems was no doubt a contributing factor. There’s certainly been a notable stylistic volte-face here, and if Kelis was delving into anything musical during her hiatus, it seems like she was spending her time sweating away to anthemic house tunes and Italo disco. It’s easy to imagine her as a diva-like presence surrounded by giant swirls of keyboard and slamming four-on-the-floor beats, so this isn’t an entirely inappropriate route for her to take. But the producer credits to Flesh Tone may strike fear into the hearts of the wary, especially when their eyes meet the name of cheesy house figurehead David Guetta.
It’s difficult to figure out why she’s gone down this route at a time when most of her contemporaries are trying to infuse pop with weirder impulses, often with great success. With Christina Aguilera recruiting various indie luminaries for her next album and Gaga releasing nine-minute long videos and strapping cigarettes to her face, this should be the perfect time for Kelis to snatch back a chunk of the limelight, to demonstrate to these whippersnappers how to rip pop apart and put it back together with just the right amount of crackpot ideas and outlandish presentation. Instead, Kelis has headed in the other direction and gone for some relatively straightforward mainstream glory at a time when 'straightforward' is looking like a creaky, outmoded concept in the pop world.
”We control the dancefloor” is the key line that surfaces toward the close in the opening song, ‘Intro’, as Kelis makes her statement of intent clear after the morass of thickset analogue keyboards and mid-paced looping drum samples fade to black. The producer credits vary from that point on, with Boys Noize taking control of ‘22nd Century’ and Black Eyed Peas’ colleague DJ Ammo overseeing ‘4th of July’, but the gist of the record remains the same—this is Kelis’s bid for your feet, spread over a clear and concise (Flesh Tone barely makes it over the 30-minute mark) set of songs that rarely step outside of the fundamental template of large pop-house tunes with sketched out lyrical mantras troweled over the top.
Anyone looking for greater depth won’t find it here. The central lyrical thrust to ‘Home’ mostly involves Kelis bawling ”Your lights are shining, I’m already home” over Ladytron-esque steely synth lines, while the "before you, my whole life was acapella" part in ‘Acapella’ is straining too hard to create another ‘Milkshake’-esque but-what-does-she-really-mean-by-that line. The latter is the high point here, which might make Guetta haters splutter coffee all over their computer monitors, but he manages to pull together something that at least sounds like it’s yanking Kelis back to her brassy take on pop on an album desperately short of creativity and invention. In some respects it’s a return to similar occurrences on her previous records, by once again being the singular bright moment amongst middling material that seems ill suited to her talent. A Kelis Greatest Hits release, perhaps packaged with a couple of new songs that dig back hard into ‘Caught Out There’ or ‘Bossy’ territory, might be just what she needs to finally court the vast audience she so clearly craves and at least partially deserves.
Flesh Tone heads fairly swiftly downhill following ‘Acapella’. Arguably, songs that are so clearly aimed at the dancefloor don’t need a greater lyrical depth, and work best when meshed with simple incantations like the circuitous shrieks of ”emancipate yourself” on ‘Emancipate’. But it’s difficult not to expect more from Kelis when she has promised so much in the past and managed to fall agonisingly short of the target on so many occasions. The biggest crime here is that it sounds so dated—listening to Flesh Tone is a bit like watching a filmmaker failing to ape the innovation of The Matrix more than a decade after it was made—an attempted lurch toward the future that fails to build on tools already at our disposal, consequently feeling frustratingly outmoded.
5Nick Neyland's Score