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Kelis

Kelis Was Here

(Jive; US: 22 Aug 2006; UK: 11 Sep 2006)

Artist Appreciation

You don’t have to love me
You don’t even have to like me
But you will respect me
—Kelis, “Bossy”


If you’re a Kelis fan, you might be frustrated with the mixed reviews of Kelis’ music. Ever since Kelis raged onto the scene with her Neptunes-produced debut, Kaleidoscope (1999), it’s been a wild and interesting ride.  No matter the album—whether it’s Kaleidoscope, the non-USA released Wanderland (2001), Tasty (2003), or her latest, Kelis Was Here—it seems like somebody’s always talkin’ trash about Kelis.  If it’s not a critic, it’s another music lover.


Now, don’t be intimidated by the naysayers. You just have to be ready. Conversations about music can take place when you least expect it, pitting your love of music against someone else’s, or a music reviewer’s, at any time. You must be sharp, resolute, and steadfast so you can launch your counterarguments at the slightest provocation. If not, you and your favorite musician could be headed for a downward spiral into obscurity. It’s up to you—the fan, the music lover—to explain why the artists you love are the best. Who’s going to do it? A record company? Don’t bet on it.


To help you along, I’ve done some of the legwork for you by collecting comments from the Kelis haters. For your artist-defending pleasure, I’ve listed a few below and I’ve taken the liberty of developing counterarguments to get you started. 


Argument 1: Too Many Gimmicks


The haters may assert that Kelis uses gimmicks to boost record sales. With “Caught Out There”, they’ll say, “She used body paint and that screaming thing.” On “Milkshake”, the big hit from Tasty, she played the vixen, using food imagery in the song, as well as in the accompanying video, for sexual suggestiveness. Sometimes the naysayers will punch this last observation by sounding like Denzel Washington in Inside Man, but instead of “This ain’t no bank robbery,” it’ll be, “C’mon, that ain’t no Milkshake!”


“Bossy”, the lead single for Kelis Was here, continues the “Milkshake” trend, this time with emphasis on bling (with lines like “Diamonds on my neck, Diamonds on my grill”).  The song even pays homage to “Caught Out There” and “Milkshake”, as the chorus chants, “I’m bossy / I’m the first chick to scream on the track / I brought all the boys to the yard”. Referred to as a “Boss B*tch” by guest rapper Too Short, the haters will assert that Kelis is long on gimmicks, but short on substance.


Hold your ground. Be firm when you explain that Kelis is far from a one trick pony. However, you’ll have to concede the commercial nature of records like “Milkshake” and “Bossy”.  Feel free to express your displeasure at a recent television commercial in which a man shakes a cow while Kelis’ “Milkshake” plays in the background.  Repeat how silly you think the commercial is, but note that Kelis can’t help the way people respond to a song.  We let the haters destroy MC Hammer with that “it’s popular, so he must be selling out” crap. We can’t allow it to happen again.


Sandbag your opponent with generalities like, “Hey, if you’re not interested in record sales, why would you get into the music business”, and follow that up with, “Songs like ‘Milkshake’ and ‘Bossy’ are designed to generate interest in the album by getting radio play”. Mention the song “Circus”, from the new album, and how it presents this big top view of the recording industry. This will imply that Kelis has become hip to the music game and is in control of what she’s doing. Throw in a Madonna parallel, if you like, but if you think that’s too ambitious, compare Kelis to ‘80s R&B singer Cherrelle. Nobody attacks the ‘80s anymore. Even Boy George is getting his props. 


It’s also a good idea to mention that Kelis Was Here, like Tasty, showcases other tunes that are diverse in sound and subject matter, notably the groovy “Till The Wheels Fall Off”, the sexy “Blindfold Me”, dance floor numbers like “Weekend” and “Trilogy”, and identity-affirming tunes such as “Lil Star” and “Appreciate Me”.  You’ve also got an ‘80s pop rocker (“I Don’t Think So”), a hip-hop joint (“Aww Sh*t”), and some Latin flavor (“Have a Nice Day”).


This will leave you open for the criticism, “With so much diversity, the album’s not cohesive. Her genre-hopping technique is just another gimmick”.  The part about cohesiveness will probably be true. The songs are individually good, but don’t really sound like they should have been grouped together on an album. Kelis Was Here is almost like a mixtape. That’s okay, though. Go on the offensive with, “So what? That’s what people said about Prince and Sign “O” the Times or Tupac’s All Eyez on Me.” I also like to add, “You might want to consider reading more reviews at PopMatters.com,” but that’s just me.
 
Argument 2: Vocals


Skeptics are likely to attack Kelis’ singing ability.  Although this can be refuted with a mere glance at her discography and her guest appearances (remember the hook she did for Ol’ Dirty Bastard: “Hey, Dirty—Baby, I Got Yo Money”), go ahead and concede that she’s no Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, or Rachelle Farrell.  For one thing, it’s the truth. She’s no Aretha. Period. But, then again, only Aretha is Aretha.  Big deal. It’s not the end of the world.


Kelis does an excellent job of using what she’s got.  She plays to her strengths by layering her vocals, experimenting with her range, and using studio effects.  Also, the huskiness of her voice is appealing, which explains why the reliance on repetition in her songs generally works for her. Convince your opponent of these counterarguments with samples of “Game Show” or “Get Along With You” from Kaleidoscope or snippets from “Rollin’ Through the Hood” or the grossly underrated “Attention” from TastyKelis Was Here has some vocal highlights as well, namely “Trilogy”, “Goodbyes”, “Lil’ Star”, and “Appreciate Me”. 


At the same time, freely admit that there could have been less rapping on Kelis Was Here, although she excels with her rhyme schemes in “Blindfold Me” and “Aww Sh*t”.  “Circus” might have benefited from omitting Kelis’ rap completely.  Be sure to mention the contributions of the guests, especially Too Short’s spot on “Bossy”, Smoke’s verse on “Aww Sh*t”, Cheryl Evans’ vocals on “Like You”, and the choir’s backing vocals on “Appreciate Me”.


This is the part where I also mention that PopMatters.com has an awesome mp3 page, a media page, and a media player. “If you still don’t like Kelis’ vocals,” I say, “maybe you’ll hear someone you do like.”


Argument 3: Where Are The Neptunes?


True Kelis fans saw this argument coming after the Neptunes’ involvement was downsized on Tasty, so there’s no excuse for being unprepared. The argument goes like this: since the Neptunes didn’t produce a single track for Kelis Was Here, Kelis tried to compensate with a mixture of producers. As a result, the album is muddled with a mess of beats and sounds, causing it to lack direction and focus.


Do not fall for this.  The sucker answer is to say, “Well, Kelis doesn’t need the Neptunes”.  You can’t win that argument since, after all, the Neptunes produced Kelis’ biggest hit, “Milkshake”. More importantly, she seems to have developed a rapport with the Neptunes, along the lines of Janet Jackson’s relationship with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis or the way Aaliyah sounded like she was born to sing over Timbaland’s quirky instrumentals. 


To escape this argument relatively unscathed, you’ll have to play up the talents of the producers she does employ on Kelis Was Here.  Nobody’s seriously going to challenge the credibility of these producers: Scott Storch (“Trilogy”), Cee-Lo Green (“Lil’ Star”), Cool & Dre (“Goodbyes”), Shondrae “Bangladesh” Crawford (“Bossy”, “Aww Sh*t”, and “Handful”), and Raphael Saadiq (“Living Proof”, “Circus”). Will.I.Am also appears as producer on “What’s That Right There”, “Till The Wheels Fall Off”, and “Weekend”. You’ll have to admit that “What’s That Right There” sounds like a rough draft of the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” and it shouldn’t have made it to the album. This will make you seem more objective when you say, “Will.I.Am’s work on ‘Till The Wheels Fall Off’ and ‘Weekend’ is topnotch.”


You can also mention that Will.I.Am contributes synth and drums on “Till The Wheels Fall Off”, along with Keith Harris and George Pajon, Jr. on guitar, and Chuck Prada on percussion. And those contributions are damn good. Say “darn good” if it makes you more comfortable, but be emphatic about it.


That’s not the only song featuring live instrumentation. For instance, Raphael Saadiq plays bass and guitar on “Living Proof” and “Circus”, while Keith Harris handles keyboards and bass on “Weekend”. I mention this because someone told me Kelis Was Here was a failure because there were no “real” instruments used on the album, as if that’s been a prerequisite for a good pop song. Sometimes, it seems like we haven’t heard a real instrument in a song since Earth Wind & Fire.  Anyway, the point is this: never argue for or against an album you haven’t even listened to.


Argument 4: Too Much Filler


I guarantee you’ll hear this, “Kelis Was Here is too long and contains too much filler”, or some variation thereof. There’s not a whole lot you can do to counter. After all, the album goes on until the wheels fall off, and maybe the hubcaps as well (almost 73 minutes). Amel Larrieux’s Morning got in and got out in less than 40 minutes and it’s nearly a masterpiece.


We’re vulnerable here because “What’s That Right There” embodies the definition of “filler”, while it’s easy to see how Kelis’ rap on “Circus” could be annoying. To make matters worse, it’s been reported that Kelis didn’t want the hidden track included on the album because of its lyrics (see Jim Farber’s article, entitled “Which Kelis Was Here?”). I thought the track was pretty good, but she’s not helping us defend the album against argument number 5.


If you’ve diligently defended Kelis against the first three arguments, then the “too much filler” argument should be a last ditch effort to throw Kelis off her game. More than likely, it means your opponent is probably getting ideas from another source. Let’s face it, music reviewers are the only ones who really use the word “filler”.  That’s not the problem, though. The problem is your opponent is lady hating on Kelis. By now, you should know where I’m going with this: politely recommend that your opponent spend more time reading reviews at PopMatters.com, starting with the archives. That should set ‘em straight.


Universal counterargument: If you find you’re hopelessly outmatched, and the Kelis haters have gotten the best of you, don’t hesitate to use the universal counter. Just say, “Hey, stop hatin’!” and walk away mad. Then go and enjoy your favorite Kelis song. It works every time.

Rating:

Quentin Huff is an attorney, writer, visual artist, and professional tennis player who lives and works in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition to serving as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, he enjoys practicing entertainment law. When he's not busy suing people or giving other people advice on how to sue people, he writes novels, short stories, poetry, screenplays, diary entries, and essays. Quentin's writing appears, or is forthcoming, in: Casa Poema, Pemmican Press, Switched-On Gutenberg, Defenestration, Poems Niederngasse, and The Ringing Ear, Cave Canem's anthology of contemporary African American poetry rooted in the South. His family owns and operates Huff Art Studio, an art gallery specializing in fine art, printing, and graphic design. Quentin loves Final Fantasy videogames, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, his mother Earnestine, PopMatters, and all things Prince.


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