Kelis has always been brazen, unapologetically growling her way onto the music scene in 1999 with the single “Caught Out There,” a vicious tale of heartbreak and revenge. Since then, she's gone on to release four more albums, achieving her greatest success in 2003, with the now-infamous braggadocio of the song “Milkshake.” With her latest release, Flesh Tone, Kelis makes what could be her boldest—and also blandest—career move yet, reinventing herself as a dance diva.
Flesh Tone is Kelis' first album of new material in four years, since the 2006 release Kelis Was Here. It's also important to note that this is Kelis' first album since the birth of her first child (a son named Knight) and the dissolution of her marriage to Knight's dad, hip-hop legend Nas. It could seem logical, then, that the nine songs comprising Flesh Tone gel together to result in the kind of life-affirming album that a lot of female artists release after such major events; think Madonna's Ray of Light. But no matter what phase, Madonna has pretty much always been entrenched in the dance-pop genre. For Kelis, such a transformation seems a little jarring and, sadly, a lot opportunistic.
With The Neptunes at the helm, her first two albums (1999's Kaleidoscope and 2001's Wanderland) were bass-heavy, chock full of oddball blip-bloops, and, lyrically speaking, often inclined toward the extraterrestrial. Yet even after she completely parted ways with the successful producing duo to release Kelis Was Here, there were still hints of wailing ferocious rock in her hip-hop mix. With Flesh Tone, Kelis makes a bold step, trying to stay relevant by shifting from the sound of her earlier career into more radio-friendly dance pop. In doing so, ironically, she sounds like another dime-a-dozen throwaway commercial diva.
The album is a success in that Kelis' usage of spacey imagery, with which she's been toying for years, has coalesced into an album-length idea, instead of sporadic song themes popping up in between other different tracks. Flesh Tone is much more unified than her previous releases. She is growing and all of her parts are coming together into a more cohesive whole. “22nd Century” serves as a good example.
I consider the second half of the album to be much better than the first. The lyrics are personal, more intimate than the hollow dance music that clogs up the first half. “Brave” and “Song For The Baby” most closely addresses Kelis' personal issues. Another excellent track is “Acapella.” As one of the strongest tracks on the album, it was a solid single choice, conveying an endearing sentimentality with the chorus: “Before you, my whole life was a cappella/now our symphony's the only song to sing.” Its amazing beat also makes it a great track for cutting loose at a nightclub.
At the end of the day, I simply cannot make up my mind on Flesh Tone. The girl who just wants to get crazy-sweaty on the dance floor can't get enough of it. The girl who has loyalties to the Kelis she's known and loved for so long has a hard time reconciling this new manifestation of one of her beloved pop stars, because I question the motives and worry that it's all one big sellout move.
Maybe it's cynicism talking. Or maybe, to paraphrase comedian Maria Bamford, I'm just paralyzed with the hope that Kelis was above all this nonsense. Then again, maybe Kelis was just as bored with her signature sound as many of us were enamored of it—which is why we got Flesh Tone.