Three years after fading before she ever got a chance to shine, Kelis is here to send a few messages: She's met her man in Nas; she can mix hip-hop, dance and whatever the hell else she wants; and she's a lean, mean sexy machine.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's October/November 2003 issue.
“What’s your name again?” It figures, Kelis thought to herself. Here I am in front of the guy I’ve had a secret crush on for months, and he’s got no idea who I am. The party—P. Diddy’s soirée to celebrate the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards—was loud and crowded. Women sporting few clothes and fewer morals were hanging off the object of her affection like Christmas decorations. Kelis was in a bind, but she said her name anyway, softly, “and he was like, ‘Oh, shit. I had to make sure, because I’m a bit drunk, but I’ve been wanting to make you my wife for years.’” Thrown, Kelis looked Nas straight in the face. God’s Son was squinting a little and tilting his head to the side, as if he couldn’t quite believe that the woman in front of him wasn’t an apparition. Her response was the pinch that let him know he wasn’t dreaming: “I said, ‘That’s great, ’cause that’s what I wanna be. Then I gave him my number and left.
“Come to find out, he’d been looking for me on the same level I was looking for him. Two days later, we had our first date. It was raining, and we walked all through Central Park. It was dope. It was really beautiful.”
Kelis didn’t always sound this peaceful. The Harlem-born singer, now 24, came into the music world kicking and screaming––literally. Her introductory single, “Caught Out There,” emerged in 1999 as an anthem for legions of girls who didn’t think they needed a hero, fiercely independent spirits who rejected any interference in their lives—by parents, by men, by anyone with a wisecrack about their so-called differences. I. Hate. You. So. Much. Right. Now.
After a youth spent running wild in New York—shaving her head, experimenting with her music-making, finding melody in clothes that clashed—Kelis found herself, at age 17, in the arms of the Neptunes. She was their first proper protégée. With the success of “Caught Out There,” it seemed likely that not only would Kelis become a star in her own right, but that all of R&B would have to shift around her, becoming better––and less tame––in the process.
That never happened, though. For someone who made such a noisy entrance, Kelis’s time inside the big house has been conspicuously quiet. Which is why it’s reassuring to hear “Milkshake,” the first single from her “comeback” album, Tasty (Star Trak/Arista). A fuzzy blast of girl-sass that’s as cool as the best disco, it proves that Kelis the asskicker is still in effect, and that complacency doesn’t stand a chance.
I was not in the mood for any of it—the career, the love life. It was way too much for me to deal with.
Even though Kelis has been basically MIA from the pop world for three years, echoes of her splashy entrée still linger. Unwittingly, she set the template for Pink, who started out as an R&B girl before taking the Harlemite’s rebellion a shade or two lighter and a million or three albums wider. In turn, if Pink hadn’t shredded the niceties of the pop princess paradigm we might not have Avril Lavigne.
So why have things been so complicated for Kelis? After sales of her debut album, Kaleidoscope, petered out without going gold, the frazzled ingénue set to work on her follow-up, Wanderland. Creative differences and the slow dissolution of her relationship with her label, Virgin, kept that record from seeing domestic release (though it did come out in Europe).
By the fall of 2001, Kelis was frustrated and bored. Trapped in a legal wrangle with Virgin, she began looking for other creative outlets. On a whim, she fashioned a one-off line of accessories that was quickly scooped up by Henri Bendel, Patricia Field and Jeffrey, New York’s bleeding-edge fashion retailers. And while her own music was on pause, she dipped her toes into the club world, writing songs for P. Diddy’s forthcoming dance album and guesting on tracks with some of nightlife’s finest producers: Timo Maas, Mondo Grosso and Roger Sanchez. She even cohosted the 2002 DanceStar USA Awards.
But despite the acclaim, Kelis was in a funk. “I was not in the mood back then,” she says. “Not for any of that shit––the career, the love life. It was way too much for me to deal with.”