Review: Kelis’ “Flesh Tone”

Jul 13, 2010 11:35am

Kelis appeared just over a decade ago with her fascinatingly odd and perhaps classic debut album, “Kaleidoscope.”  As one of the Neptunes’ first protégés, what made her interesting was the fact that she fit well into an R&B-pop format while at the same time bringing something unique to the table.  Often times, particularly on that record, there were electronic sounds more akin to what you’d expect to find on a record by Devo or Peaches.  Her single, “Caught Out There,” had a refreshingly angry, almost punk-like energy.  You really felt like she was a woman scorned as she screamed, “I hate you so much right now!”  But she was also quite versatile. Second single, “Get Along With You,” was a more meditative, haunted and heartbroken ballad.  Her second record, “Wanderland” was sadly not released in the States, even though, single, “Young, Fresh and New” was in somewhat regular rotation on MTV2 at the time of its planned release. It was her third album, “Tasty,” that produced her most famous (but not best) track, “Milkshake.” Her last record was the somewhat forgettable “Kelis Was Here,” four years ago. Listeners who pick up her latest album, “Flesh Tone” will be in for quite a surprise if they haven’t done their research.  She’s essentially switched genres.  No longer the poster-child of freak-flag, electro-flavored R&B, she’s now gone totally and completely electro.  The disc only has nine songs and clocks in a mere thirty-seven minutes.  Its brevity is either a sign of shrinking album-lengths across the board, or evidence that this is a one-off experimental foray that she wasn’t sure was going to work.  Does she effectively transform herself and make the transition from hip-hop and R&B to house diva?  Well, the answer is both yes and no.  “Flesh Tone” is uneven at times but overall an enjoyable record.  Its weak spots are evident, yet when she finds her groove, Kelis proves she can deliver. The album opens with a fully-constructed song, simply titled, “Intro.”  It sounds like dance music from 1983.  (Who does she think she is?  Shannon?)  It’s got a decent beat to it, yet as she starts to sing, Kelis strangely sounds like she’s mid-yawn.  She doesn’t sound bored, but the song seems to catch her in a strange vocal tone.  The track still has allure as she sings, “You draw me in. / Every time I think I’m free, you win,” but it doesn’t really come to life until her voice is isolated with just the drums.  “22nd Century” is next and it begins to raise some alarms.  One of the biggest concerns about this record is that the switch in genres will mute Kelis’ quirks and make her sound like every other house and electronic-pop vocalist.  This is a rather basic dance tune even down to a somewhat lame, “Everybody’s dancin’ dancin’” refrain.  It isn’t very distinctive.  Turn on your local “chunka-chunka”-style dance music station and you’ll hear a dozen other electro-infused tracks that sound very much like this one.  “4th Of July (Fireworks)” would have a similar problem if Kelis hadn’t inserted a dose of soulfulness into the mix.  When she sings, “Nothing I’ll ever say or do will be as good as loving you,” her voice is ripe with emotion.  Yet the track is filled with sonic clichés.  The piano line that bounces and mutes to the beat, which once would’ve seemed fresh, now comes off as standard.  The robotic man’s voice saying “and I don’t want to come down,” during the chorus is distracting.  It’s like the dance-production version of a producer like Timbaland inserting his voice into the mix where it doesn’t belong.  Sure, Pharrell did this all over her first record, but somehow, he added something oddly cool to the mix. Somehow, against all odds, Kelis still makes this track just barely work.  “Home” is the album’s first true success.  Maybe that’s because it has more of an electro-clash tone.  This screams dance-floor hit as Kelis sings the chorus of “Your love is blinding. / I’m already home.” While “Home” works, it is immediately put to shame in comparison to the next track and main single, “Acapella.” This is easily the best track on the record.  It pairs a driving beat built around a repeated tone with one of the most flattering melodies Kelis has ever committed to a record.  That balance between harshness and beauty equals gold.  Produced by David Guetta, this is the album’s one overwhelmingly obvious crowning achievement.   “Scream” utilizes a piano-line to give Kelis something more traditional to sing over.  She does an excellent job here, but the song doesn’t truly pick up until things are allowed to get a tad freaky.  Somehow the song’s best moment arrives when the beat kicks in and Kelis begins to dryly and slyly speak the words, “They’ll never know. / If you don’t let it out. / You’ve had enough. / They’ll call your bluff. / You can’t back down lost in a crowd. / You’ve won the right to scream and shout.”  Te song could do without the cheeseball sampled countdown before this section, but again, this track is an ever so slightly flawed success.  As in most of the other cases, it’s Kelis’ unique pull and personality that pulls it through.  “Emancipate” stands as an unfortunate weak spot.  Right away, things get dicey. Kelis says, “Let me tell you what love is. / It’s when you meet each other halfway. / I’m en route.”  Over a dodgy keyboard line she sings the chorus of “Emancipate yourself,” over and over again.  While it brings to mind her new found freedom after her recent divorce from Nas, it doesn’t make for a compelling listen.  The other lyrics are from the way too standard “you go, girl” book of inspiration.  I hope someone finds it uplifting, but it just doesn’t even really try that hard.  Its sentiment of “Be just who you are and make no apologies” has been conveyed many times before with better, more concrete results. Only the song’s halfway decent bridge keeps it from being a total wash. Luckily, “Brave” works better, returning her to more of an electro-clash realm.  An electronic effect is evident on her voice, but it’s subtle enough not to draw attention away from the track’s focus.  Such an effect is more of a sonic decoration than a vocal fix.  The track has a nice moment when the beat goes away and is replaced by an acoustic guitar for a few bars.  “Song For The Baby” closes the record in style.  It’s a disco-esque strut, given extra girth from a well placed horn-section.  Really, this is one of Kelis’ most commanding performances on the disc as she sings the words from a letter to her child, declaring, “I’ll love you more than you’ll ever know.”  When singers write songs about their children, they often come off as syrupy and trite.  Kelis dodges this bullet by giving this track a really fun and joyous bounce.  “Flesh Tone” is not a pefect record, but it ultimately, despite some rough patches, is a worthwhile experiment.  At the very least, it shows that Kelis is a very flexible performer who can be put in front of a wide variety of backdrops.  Her charisma is the key to this record’s successful moments. 

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