With four crazed, wildly different albums of spaced-out R&B-pop, Kelis proves hard to define and even harder to write off as "just that 'Milkshake' girl."
Let us start our journey here:
Yes indeed: Daniel Day-Lewis' immortal catchphrase from There Will Be Blood has been mixed with Kelis' most well-known song. For those who've seen the movie and know the song, it's obvious how ridiculous the combination is, but wonderfully surreal moments like this are fleeting. A career, several peaks spread out over a healthy amount of time, is much harder to obtain. Daniel Day-Lewis never needs to worry. He has a strong career that stretches over several decades. What a lot of people don't know, however, is that Kelis has one that actually warrants a greatest hits package, along with a fascinating backstory involving backwards record label politics and massive media in-fighting. It's a career almost as fascinating as Daniel Day-Lewis'.
Though "Milkshake" shook radios all throughout 2003 and 2004, Kelis' career actually started many years earlier, way back in 1999 when she dropped Kaleidoscope, a frenzied album of angry, biting R&B-pop, produced by the Neptunes, as many of her tracks were. The Hits opens with her first single, the stunning, vengeful "Caught Out There". With its megaphone-blasted chorus of "I hate you so much right now!", people weren't sure if this was just an edgy R&B diva or some deranged pop mistress. In fact she was kind of both. "Caught Out There" became such a small-scale sensation that even nowadays you can hear that song's influence in places like Beyoncé's "Ring the Alarm" and other likeminded singles. Unfortunately, that one track was about all the mileage that Kelis would be able to wrangle out of Kaleidoscope. The Hits tries to justify past wrongs by including other "mainstream-friendly" R&B tracks like "Get Along With You" and "Suspended". Though certainly above-average, these tracks just don't pack the same punch as Kelis' more club-oriented tracks. The Hits even winds up ending with one: the surprisingly underwhelming "Good Stuff" (featuring Terras … who?), making the overall lenience on Kelis' first album somewhat questionable.
Of course The Hits isn't just about Kelis: it's about the Neptunes as well. Kelis' debut was their first big project, and it wasn't long before other offers came rolling in. The Hits wisely gathers up a few of Kelis' notable guest verses, and it's all the better for it. Best of all is the astonishingly funny Ol' Dirty Bastard hit "Got Your Money", in which Kelis simply plays the role of "hook girl", but ODB's verses are so witty and the Neptunes bassline so catchy that you don't mind at all. The compilers also toss in Kelis' spot on N.E.R.D.'s "Truth or Dare", along with a surprisingly limber guest spot on Richard X's "Finest Dreams", to round things out. Though the compilation does stay away from some of Kelis' less-notable spots (OutKast's "Dracula's Wedding", for one), it would have been nice to finally have that leaked Bjork/Kelis duet ("Oceania [Remix]") available for mass consumption. C'est la vie …
Yet just when all seemed going well for Kelis, in came the immortal problem of her second album, Wanderland. Once again produced entirely by the Neptunes, the album was preceded by the single "Young Fresh 'n' New", with another volley of towering synths but none of the attitude that defined Kelis so early on. When the single flopped in the U.S., Virgin made the controversial move of withholding the release of Wanderland in the States. As of this writing, it's still not available. Truth be told, Wanderland isn't much to write home about. Though the driving rock of "Perfect Day" and the surprisingly catchy fluff song "Junkie" would've been great small-time radio hits, Virgin felt like playing up the "girl seeking revenge" side of Kelis' songs, ultimately painting her into a corner very prematurely.
Then she ordered a milkshake.
Switching labels (Virgin to Arista) meant switching up producers, so by the time that 2003's Tasty came out, Kelis was suddenly in cahoots with the likes of Andre 3000 ("Millionaire") and Rockwilder ("In Public"). The latter track features a guest verse from Kelis' steady, the ever-prolific rapper Nas. He appeared briefly in the video for "Milkshake" -- as quixotic a come-on song as there ever will be in mainstream pop music -- where he sported a tattooed image of Kelis on his arm. This minor detail eventually got blown up into one of those ever-pointless rap beef wars when 50 Cent sniped at Nas in his song "Piggy Bank" with the line "Kelis said her milkshake bring all the boys to the yard / then Nas went and tattooed the bitch on his arm". Kelis couldn't have avoided this high-profile slander even if she tried.
That led her to drop the sex-kitten persona in order to become "the bitch y'all love to hate". This line, of course, comes from her second-biggest hit, "Bossy", which was the lead single from her fourth album Kelis Was Here. She was suddenly the "bad girl" again, now swearing up a storm for practically no reason. Switching labels once more, from Arista to LaFace/Jive, she now was completely without the aid of the Neptunes. Because of this, she faltered mightily. Kelis Was Here was a bloated attempt at redefining Kelis as the bad girl who doesn't play by the rules. But yet another image-change led to vanishing sales, "Bossy" soon becoming scene-change music for The Hills and little else. That album's only saving grace is thankfully snatched up for The Hits: the joyous little slice of soul-pop called "Lil' Star", featuring the inimitable Cee-Lo Green, who also produced. It's not her best track, but its feel-good vibes were a beacon of light on that particularly bleak album.
Thus, we are left with a somewhat muddled portrait of a genre-hopping diva: a powerful vocalist who is both a proud individual and shameless conformist in equal measures. On the masterful "Trick Me”, the second single from Tasty, she drops the incendiary line, "Freedom to us has always been a trick / Freedom to you has always been whoever landed on your dick", skillfully recalling the scorned woman persona she harvested so carefully on "Caught Out There". It's a persona that grows to be overbearing on "Bossy" and is practically non-existent on tracks like "Good Stuff". Still, "Caught Out There" sounds great nearly a decade (!) after its release, and Kelis' best tracks ("Milkshake", "Trick Me", "Caught Out There", "Got Your Money") are about as pleasurable as pop music gets. The Hits doesn't cover all the bases, but its modest ambitions more than make up for any major imperfections. Besides, if Daniel Day-Lewis can get away with the occasional less-than-stellar movie, why can't Kelis get away with the occasional less-than-stellar track?