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.”
So when a friend dropped a copy of a Nas magazine interview at her house, urging Kelis to read it, she didn’t think much of it. “My friend’s like, ‘He sounds like he’s quoting you. He’s saying exactly what you say.” I ignored it for a while, but something made me pick it up. I swear, I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ His answers were so…it was like it was me talking. I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is serious.’”
Love didnt' come easy to Kelis. Much of the lost Wanderland bears the scars of a dysfunctional relationship––one that took personal and professional tolls. “We never dated,” Kelis says of Pharrell Williams, the public face of the Neptunes. “We have the same relationship now that we did then, with the exception of the sexual part. I used to care too much. I began to feel that all men cheat. [I felt] all cynical and gross.
”Ironically, she says, “Pharrell was one of the people who was always like, ‘Nas would be perfect for you.’” And so he is. And even though Tasty sports some holdover aggression (especially on songs like “Trick Me”), what the album really conveys is Kelis’s comfort with her newfound artistic and emotional freedom.
“I never had an album that was all mine before,” she says. “Wanderland was really personal, but it belonged to a group of people—to me and the Neptunes and [Neptunes manager] Rob [Walker]. For Tasty, I literally went and got everything myself. Pharrell and Chad were totally submerged in their own shit, had no clue nor cared what I was doing––which was fine. I was really out there for the first time in five years. I was by myself again, and there were no rules, which made it more interesting. If you work with someone for so long, it becomes a crutch. You get used to someone telling you, ‘Say it like this. Do it like that.’”
If you work with someone for so long, it becomes a crutch. You get used to someone telling you, ‘Say it like this. Do it like that.’
Pharrell, for his part, has nothing but praise for the singer. “Kelis is very attentive and she understands where her voice should be and how it should sound,” he says. “Working with her is never hard.”
No longer backed by Virgin, Kelis took it upon herself to work the phones and get the ball rolling. “Throughout the years, I’d made a lot of friends who I respect, and I started looking for them, like, ‘Yo, will you work with me? Can we do some stuff off the strength of, someday someone will sign me?’” She says this with a sly grin that could pass for knowing, but is really sheepish and modest.
For her first sessions, Kelis shacked up with Harlem producer Dame Grease in what she describes as “the most ghetto studio I’ve ever seen––but I loved it.” The result, “Stick Up,” is one of Tasty’s standout cuts, a love story masked in a thug anthem. Also coming through in the clutch was Rockwilder, who laced Kelis with “In Public,” a fantastic, bombastic sex-rock song she should have made five years ago, before Pink cornered the market.
Until just a couple of months ago, Kelis was renting a railroad apartment on 137th Street, not 10 blocks from where she grew up. Soon after she began dating Nas, he effectively moved in, preferring the comfy, homey spot to his flavorless apartment in Manhattan’s tony Sutton Place. “His apartment is a total bachelor pad,” she says with a laugh. “Beige walls, the TV, the couch, and that’s it. We’ll both be sitting on the couch and I’ll say, ‘I hate it here,’ and he’s like, ‘Me, too.’ And we’ll just turn the TV up louder.
“So instead, he would come uptown and hang out with me, and we would have a great time. But I’d be like, ‘Yo, can you go to the store and get some milk?’ And it would take an hour with all the people stopping him. People were really happy to see him up there. I would make him walk to Pan Pan, this really ghetto spot for soul food—no security, no car, no nothing. No one made him do that, ever.”
Kelis’s low-profile lifestyle appealed to her new boyfriend. “She was the most humble person I could have expected to meet,” Nas says. “It blew me away. I’m humble myself, and it’s a lot of fucked-up people out there. Meeting her was just relaxing.”
And she echoes the sentiment: “We have the most calm relationship. We had a good solid year where we really got to get into each other. Neither one of us are party people anyway, so when we do [go to a party], we do it together and we have a good time. Then he’ll whisper to me, ‘Let’s go watch Best In Show,’ and then we leave.
“It was a while before we were able to see just how incredible this was,” Kelis continues wistfully. “Nas was going through a lot—his mother had just passed—and that was really serious for him. Him even being able to open up was really hard. He wanted to, and that’s what kept it going. What was cool for him was that I didn’t hang around waiting. He’d call me and I’d be like, ‘Wheeee! I’m rollerblading, I’ll call you back.’ I had my life.
“Every move that we’ve made has been him—let’s really take this seriously, let’s move in together, let’s get married. I never pressured him to do anything. It happened really slowly and gradually and one day we just locked in, and it was so comfortable.”
You can’t pressure a man to do something—if he’s gonna do it, he’s gonna do it.
’Twas the night before Christmas, 2002—Noche Bueno, Kelis calls it, in the Puerto Rican tradition—and her mother’s house was teeming with family and friends. “All my best friends from high school were there, my sisters, my cousins,” she recalls, “And I brought him along, too.”
While most of the guests were assembled in the living room, Nas took Kelis aside and presented her with a ring. “He could not have known me better that day,” she says, beaming. “He didn’t do it in front of everybody. He gave the ring to me alone, then let me tell my girlfriends. It was so much sooner than I expected. You can’t pressure a man to do something—if he’s gonna do it, he’s gonna do it.”
“She’s my best friend,” Nas says. “Because me and her started at the same age as far as getting on, we lived a full life already compared to your average person. To get married now, it’s only right.”
The happy twosome has decided to spend less time thinking about today and more time looking toward the future. To that end, they just bought a house deep in the Atlanta exurbs. “There’s deer and lizards in my neighborhood,” Kelis says, laughing. “I wake up and there’s lizards on the window.” She makes a face, then laughs at herself wildly.
“Right after Christmas, I was there three months by myself, in this big empty house. Nas was on tour, and there was no one, no furniture, no nothing. At certain points, you’re like, If I’m not good company for myself, then I’m not good company for anyone else. I’d built up this wonderful callus on myself, and after all that’s happened to me lately, I don’t have it anymore. I’m totally flesh right now, and it feels amazing.”
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: STYLING: Atiba newsome/NU America Agency. MAKEUP: Devra Kinery. HAIR: Hector Pocasanger/Photogenics LA. MANICURE: Deana Blackwell/Go Girl NYC. COVER IMAGE: Skirt by Marni. FIRST IMAGE: Bra, panty, garter belt, and stockings by Agent Provocateur / shoes by Manolo Blahnik. SECOND IMAGE: Swimsuit by Norma Kamali / shoes by Fendi / jewelry by Showroom 7. THIRD IMAGE: Dress by Ungaro / shoes by Manolo Blahnik / jewelry by Jacob & Co. FOURTH IMAGE: Top by Sass 'N Bide / jewelry by Jacob & Co.