You don't know me at all, but it'd be kind of hard to underestimate your importance in my life these last couple of years. On a given day—give or take Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, Prince's Purple Rain, PiL's Metal Box, ABC's The Lexicon of Love, and your fiancée's debut album, Illmatic—your first album, Kaleidoscope, might be my favorite album of all time. And Wanderland, which never even got released in the U.S. when it came out in 2001 (that must have galled) . . . everyone calls it a drop-off, but I just don't hear it. It's nearly perfect.
You did kind of fall between the poles of the Neptunes' world takeover, though, didn't you? You helped make them stars—they produced both Kaleidoscope and Wanderland—but you weren't really able to benefit from their omnipresence. And so two of the best pop albums of the post-swingbeat era end up in the cutout bin and the import rack, respectively. What kind of pop justice is that?
It sure explains Tasty (Arista), though. I was happy to see "Milkshake" blow up, though by the time it did, I had been listening to the MP3 for six months; and by the time it was everywhere, I never wanted to hear it ever again. It's funny what will finally make people take notice, isn't it? "Milkshake" has a great hook, but that hook is no better or worse than the one from Wanderland's "Digital World"—though, sure, "Milkshake" is way more monolithic, which I guess speaks volumes about any attempt at subtlety in today's charts. (We can blame that on your pal Pharrell, too.) And it's "weird" enough, meaning people can say it sounds like Liason Dangereuses rather than Trouble Funk, that all the indie kids I know in Olympia love it.
So what happened? Compared to the organic (compositionally, since it all sounds like video-game music) grooviness of the first two records, Tasty sounds engineered from the top down to be a "hit." It has no rough edges, no internal conflict, nothing left hanging or unresolved or uncomfortable or just, you know, weird. And yet there's nothing here to equal the clockwork pleasure professionalism Destiny's Child seemed to achieve so effortlessly at their Rodney Jerkins/Shek'spere Briggs peak, right around the time Kaleidoscope appeared. And essentially dumping the Neptunes, who only get five tracks on Tasty, at the height of their popularity if not aesthetic powers for a motley assortment of pop workmen and hip-hop second-stringers—I mean, Dallas Austin? Is this 1994? Go call Joi and see what he did for her career. Joi who? Exactly.
Is it really an accident that the best track on the album comes from Wanderland? There it is, sitting in the middle of the album—"Flashback," still maybe the best thing you or the Neptunes have ever done. It's so simple—just an off-beat kick drum, some scatterbrained snares, and four synth notes, each one like a sky swelling with stars. But it's the best kind of minimalism, the kind that fills up your whole heart. It evokes the feeling of summer in the city better than any song I know. And a flimsy piece of genre exercise like "Trick Me" is supposed to measure up to this?
Maybe I'm blowing things out of proportion. You're human; you're entitled to success as much as anyone. But there was such an instant bolt of connection when I heard you four years ago—larger than life, but seemingly into all the same stuff I was: hip-hop, sex, bad teen poetry, secondhand Afro-futurism that seeped in while your parents played Earth, Wind & Fire records on Sunday afternoons. We even have the same taste in guys. Sure, you surround yourself in videos and songs with the kind of louche thugs who will make you crack up as quickly as terrify you. Then you get engaged to . . . Nas. I wonder if you listen to "The World Is Yours" or "Life's a Bitch" and get the same shiver I still do, 10 years on. You and I were about the same age when Illmatic came out.
And I don't know why you feel the need to compete with Beyoncé, whom I can't imagine cracking a joke even with a gun to her head. People who saw the video for "Milkshake" and were all, "Oh my God, I can't believe how sexual it was," didn't know you for shit. You were always the sexiest kind of girl: the kind that could equally rock Prada and Converse, the kind who would launch into a pinched Lucille Ball impression during a come-on, the kind who'd rather stay in and smoke up than go to a fancy restaurant. Maybe you sitting on that giant milkshake on the back cover is some kind of oblique Mel Ramos reference, but given the sub-Maxim gold bikini spread inside, I doubt it. Maybe you are "reclaiming" your "feminine sexuality," but that move has just gotten so banal, overworked, and emptied of frisson by every carpetbagging diva in the last half-decade. Do you really want to put yourself in a position to be confused with Jessica Simpson?
I don't want to come off like some Luddite old-school feminist who equates stuffing your tits into a tube top with rape. But I'm just confused as to why you want to render yourself less than you are to play the celebrity game. "Milkshake" sure isn't any less of a novelty single than "Caught Out There" was. You were never a singles artist, anyway, but there's no market for album-based R&B in 2004 unless you want to go the neo-soul route—and dear God, don't break my heart any further. I guess that makes me a rockist as well as a Luddite, and uptight to boot. But I have to assume there's some middle ground left, a space between "pop" and "underground" that's not totally middlebrow and blanded out. I'd take 1,000 "semipopular" albums like Kaleidoscope or Wanderland over one hit like Tasty. If loving what you used to be as opposed to what you are now is wrong, well, I don't want to be right.
(Still) Your fan,
Kelis plays KeyArena with Britney Spears and Skye Sweetnam at 7:30 p.m. Fri., March 12. $40.50–$76.