Music may be the food of love for Shakespeare, but for Kelis, food is the love of music. Or at least that’s what her sixth album might persuade you into believing, with its song titles that read like the menu from some po-mo restaurant and lyrics that tenderly quote her storied musical biography. But there’s a small hitch in its plans to mingle gustation and audition into one celebratory dish, and it’s that it represents the weakest music of her career, a recurrently insipid mĂ©lange of MOR pop, MOR R&B, and MOR AOR that’s been sieved of pretty much every flavor that installed the New Yorker as a harbinger for so many of the names (e.g., Rihanna, Lady Gaga) who today stand at the intersection between electro, dance, R&B, and pop.
The disappearance of Ms. Roger’s former energy and sass isn’t the only issue with Food, because it’s all-too possible to argue that the album’s “mature” restraint and politeness are bolstered by a complementary problem. For instance, “Jerk Ribs” may very well be the best of a tepid bunch, with the nimble bass and pushy horns of its verse, but its reminiscences on Kelis’s father, and more specifically on how he was responsible for instilling a passion for music in her, betray what the album’s musicophilia is really all about. She sings, “I was the girl, my daddy was the world/ He played the notes and keys/ He said to look for melody in everything,” and with this identification of not just “the world” with her father, but by extension also the “notes and keys” and the definition of “melody” he impressed upon her, she lets slip that her love of music is at bottom identical to her love of validation, acceptance, and affection, to her deference to patriarchal authority, and to a dependency on approval and applause from her social milieu.
Of course, the same charge could be leveled at every musician and creative on the planet, but on Food, the Other-oriented motivational core of artistic endeavor assumes a glaringly resigned nakedness. Almost everything on the album is skewed complaisantly toward other people, with the libidinally-charged defiance of a “Milkshake” or a “Caught Out There” replaced by the domesticated “Breakfast” and the chick-flick fanfare that underlies its banal thanksgiving for another’s fidelity. Moreover, there’s something unnerving about hearing Kelis play the role of the doting supplicant for so much of the album, her voice sounding vaguely tired and cracked in the nocturnal drift of “Runner” and the bar-room call-and-response of “Fish Fry,” where she pleads with Mr. Right or Wrong to “Give me what I want/ Give me what I need/ I’m begging you please/ I’m down on my knees.”
And even where things are a little more jubilant and self-assured, any alleviation emerges only because and for the benefit of a certain select crowd or market, rather than for the sake of the music “in itself” and Kelis “in herself.” It’s almost as if the carpe-diem sentimentality of “Forever Be” and the mundane tribute of “Bless the Telephone” are not, in their respective uses of piano-led balladry and folkish intimacies, so much professing their fondness for a significant other as professing their devotion to the commonplace notions of romance and relationships that Kelis imagines her desired audience to harbor. In singing “Baby, you’re the one” for the Latin festivities of “Cobbler” and “Baby, don’t go” during the mellowed strut of “Rumble,” her affirmative reproductions of popularly-treasured clichĂ©s function to implore the audience not to go, that the audience is the One she wants to keep happy and by her side.
Depending on how far you’d like to excavate, this indulgence of trite blandishments can even be framed as an unlikely case study in how all relationships are to a certain extent relationships with wider society, or rather attempts to appease that society and conform to its mores. And aside from bromides like “This is the real thing” that’s repeated during the plodding chorus of “Breakfast” and whose use of “real” once again intimates that an entanglement has lasting value only insofar as it aligns itself with popular bases of comparison, Food also suffers from largely flat music. Gone is the electro-tinged flair of earlier albums like Tasty and Kaleidoscope, and in its place are painfully genteel horns, pianos, and strings that revolve flaccidly around unadventurous arrangements, few of which cast either Kelis or producer Dave Sitek in a particularly favorable light.
This recycling of lowest common denominators, of the comforting platitudes a rag-tag of consumers would like to hear and of what might endear Kelis to them, results in flagrant inconsistencies on her part. To wit, there is the reverance for dependability and domestic security involved in the abovementioned “Breakfast,” “Bless the Telephone,” and “Forever Be,” but there is also the fact that this praise for relational constancy and safety is negated by songs like “Floyd,” where a languid organ and sleepy xylophone convey the plea, “I want to be blown away/ Blow me away/ I want to be blown away.” Then there’s the fantasizing “I’m a dreamer” of “Dreamer,” a starry-eyed album closer that houses such chorus-/title-contradicting images as “If all was left to me/ We’d be naked climbing trees,” and which in awkward disjunction with all the other picked cherries suggest that Kelis has simply given voice to whatever half-thoughts are serving to lubricate social inclusion at this moment in time, rather than to a coherent subject position she may or may not possess.
So, to put this differently, Food is another sad testament to how the squares have won and how we’re all likely to capitulate at one point or another to the dictates of the majority. Not that Kelis was ever the renegade this review has probably been implying, but it seems that after a passage of years in which she’s been dropped by labels, arrested, divorced, and had an album scrapped, she’s now veering toward a safer course, tracing the path of least resistance. That said, hopefully this path has led her to greater happiness and stability, because sadly it hasn’t led her to better music.