As Kelis knows, sometimes you just have to swallow.

Jessica Boullion
“Actually that one song is about sucking cock, OK?” (Courtesy of LaFace)

Since her dangerously catchy “Milkshake,” pop life for the singer – at least the aspects documented in the media – has been decidedly frothy. She got married to Nas in a lavish Poison Ivy-themed wedding, appeared at various awards shows wearing outfits each more over the top than the last and pretty much lost any chance to regain the respect she earned (or at least the credibility critics hoped she brought to the table) with the raging “Caught Out There” on 1999’s Kaleidoscope.

Kelis won’t be getting props in the same vein as the praise for “Caught Out There” – a great deal of it for being “the first girl to scream on a track,” as Kelis puts it – but taking on the role of extravagant, overtly sexual hip-hop pop star isn’t necessarily a concession. With the impression she projects on Kelis Was Here, Kelis isn’t just the louche party girl making suggestive gestures from across the club. To be sure, she is exactly that on a few tracks – after all someone has to make up for Lil’ Kim when the Queen Bee’s in the pen. But this fourth solo effort shows Kelis as the alpha female in the bedroom as well as the studio. Kelis may have a certain image but she’s obviously the calculating mind behind it.

Kelis Was Here starts in promising fashion. On the introduction, Kelis spins a velvety boast with style closer to 1930s lounge than anything else. “One day your children’s babies’ babies’ babies’ / Will know that Kelis was here,” she announces over slow-foot jazz drums, capping the sketch with a coda built by a lupine whistle.

Lead-off single “Bossy,” ubiquitous at summer house parties, is Kelis at her “Bitch, please” acme. She flaunts her sex appeal and fashion sense over a satisfyingly sparse beat and one of those faux-Middle Eastern sounds-like-a-sitar-but-it’s-just-guitar line, a club track favorite of the past two years.

But the album’s greatest weakness is its length. Buyers looking for shiny, happy party music like on Tasty will struggle as Kelis Was Here begins to drag after a dozen tracks, with a bonus cut amounting to trash about trash. The second half of the album shows a more experimental Kelis, which is welcome move although hit or miss. The sangria-tinged “Have A Nice Day” ends with a refreshing classical guitar feature, despite vocals that begin staid and uninspired.

“Living Proof” is a simple mid-tempo number that’s feather-light and surprisingly affecting. Kelis pulls off lyrics like “If you don’t believe / I’m telling you the truth / Open up your heart / And love will come to you,” genuinely convincing you that Nas must make for some sweet, sweet loving to inspire such a dulcet throwback ballad.

And then Kelis goes and milks her fuck-me-in-the-restaurant-bathroom persona like the cows aren’t ever coming home. Songs like “What’s That Right There” makes you wonder if she wears stiletto heels and Agent Provacateur all the time. It makes you question her sincerity on supposed heart-renders like “Goodbyes.” But if you want Kelis to stick to her type, she does it well here: a tinny-two step rhythm and tumbling bass drum beats segue into something vaguely Chic “Le Freak”-ish as she throws around lines like “Your heart’s gonna stop / When I drop . down,” making sure to emphasize the last word, rolling it around in her mouth.

“Blindfold Me” is no different in attitude. Kelis struts in on a galloping buzz-bell rhythm and alternates between breathing heavily and speaking her piece on her sexcapades. However, the hook on “Blindfold Me” reveals her weak singing voice. She’s competent to sing the occasional guest hook (see “Got Your Money”), but when she tries for that trembly Toni Braxton alto, it’s uncomfortably forced and broken.

Kelis is capable of stretching her limited talent further and she obviously knows it. On “Circus” she muses on her position in the superficial music industry: “They told me this how they get rich y’all / Make a hit song, same lame lyrics, same bass, same kickdrum.” But she scores when she sticks to this recipe and she always jumps back to it. Mostly just for show, Kelis plays the lion tamer, tightrope walker and fire-eater she sings about on the track. She sets up this sex-kitten image and sticks with it for the majority of her work, providing occasional glimpses of promising experimentation. Strange, but after 17 tracks of Kelis asserting herself as top dog, hearing “Circus” makes you rethink whether it’s a good thing that she’s so pleased with herself.

Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Kelis Was Here

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