Kelis’s Comfort ‘Food’

Maura Johnston

By Maura Johnston

on 04.21.14 in Features

A few years ago, I spoke at an event called “Wine Unplugged” that filled the darkened meeting room of a casino with a wine tasting (reds, whites and bubblys); a Grateful Dead cover band; and a couple of writers well versed in matters of food and music. I was charged with explaining the similarities between wine and music to the audience, and I remember stammering through adjectives used to describe both — “full-bodied,” “tart,” “flowery,” “foul” — while the musicians stared at me with just enough ire to let me know their hopes that I’d hop off the stage and let them get to the business of chugging through “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”

I kept coming back to this event while listening to Food, the sixth album by the ever-compelling genre-masher Kelis, produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek. Both the record (Kelis’s first on the UK-based label Ninja Tune) and the fanfare surrounding it have been awash in culinary signifiers. The lead single (and album opener) is the shape-shifting paean to music’s nourishing qualities, “Jerk Ribs”; other tracks are named “Biscuits n’ Gravy” and “Friday Fish Fry”; its release has been accompanied by a special on the Cooking Channel (Food Network’s scrappy little brother) where Kelis, a recently minted graduate of the culinary-education chain Le Cordon Bleu, shows off her recipes for goat cheese ice cream, apple buckle and, yes, jerk ribs.

The link between the musical and the culinary is older than Shakespeare, although it’s experienced a bit of a renaissance in the past decade or so from all levels of the, er, food chain. Three of the many examples: Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant chain (which has its own frozen-appetizers spinoff); I Like Food, Food Tastes Good, which collects recipes from the likes of Silkworm and Belle & Sebastian; and Pharrell and Ginuwine lending their blessings to thick alcoholic concoctions. Music festivals have decided to double their selling potential by touting the provenance of their burgers and dogs as much as the list of bands they’ve booked. From an economic perspective, the reasons behind the two teaming up are obvious — there are fewer ways to get around paying for food than there are for music. You can download “Jerk Ribs,” but not jerk ribs.

While the track listing’s resemblance to a soul-food shack’s menu might be a bit of an accident — Kelis told Rolling Stone that song names like “Biscuits n’ Gravy” were in part the result of an engineer’s end-of-the-night in-jokes — digging into Food makes the comparison between Kelis’s medium and this album’s overarching angle even more explicit. The best music, like the best food, nourishes and pleases even as the finish offers an unexpected kick. Food doesn’t really have a lot of surprises, but it satisfies anyway: She could have called it Comfort Food.

Sitek’s productions offer an all-encompassing, lush feeling — the wall-to-wall-carpet orchestrations of “Forever Be,” the crisply commanding horns buried underneath the bombastic “Change,” and the rolling guitar lines of “Bless The Telephone” (a cover of Brit troubadour Labi Siffre’s 1971 track) are warm, with Kelis’s voice wafting over them, sounding at times pleasantly, and humanly, hoarse. Even the songs that sound spare at first open up; “Biscuits and Gravy” winds itself around some minor-key piano noodling, like something you might idly plunk out on a friend’s keyboard while waiting for them. The overall feel is simultaneously retro and current, a credit to Sitek’s deft touch with signifiers; the breakup-sex jam “Rumble” has Kelis sounding like Aretha Franklin over spit-shined horns that could have been teleported from the ’70s, while the slinky “Cobbler” would slot well into any party playlist that included Pharrell’s biggest Gaye-and-Chic-borrowing jams from 2013.

More importantly, Kelis sounds more settled. Sure, she first entered the pop consciousness with the wrenching Neptunes jam “Caught Out There,” and anything would sound content in comparison. But the mood of Food is simultaneously curious and rooted — even “Rumble,” with its lyrics about getting back together with someone who is clearly wrong for you, operates from a position of relative strength. On the slow-building “Biscuits n’ Gravy,” Kelis sings, “Doesn’t matter where I thought I’d be/ time to relish where I’ve been.” Food might not boast the avant-R&B edge of her earlier work, but it is a strong, provocative statement from a woman who’s traveled a long path, and who’s ready to use her knowledge of the full-bodied and foul things life has to offer.