By Noah Hubbell
By Leslie Simon
By Brad Lopez
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Inkoo Kang
By Dave Herrerra
By Josiah M. Hesse
Still, her most important associates were Williams and Hugo, known collectively as the Neptunes; they produced "Got Your Money." Under their tutelage, Kelis landed a recording contract in 1998 that led directly to Kaleidoscope, her debut, which was released the following year. The producers didn't want anyone to mistake their contributions: The back of the album features the grammatically awkward statement, "All songs and instruments were produced, performed and arranged by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo." They co-wrote all the songs as well; Kelis is listed as a contributor on only three out of fourteen offerings. Against all odds, however, Kaleidoscope comes across as an extremely personal effort, especially on the visceral "Caught Out There." "This song is for all the women out there who've been lied to by their men," she says at the outset of the tune, a willful psychodrama that concludes with her screaming, "I hate you so much right now!"
"Caught Out There" received moderate domestic airplay but got more attention overseas. Its performance dictated Virgin's bottom-line-motivated indifference to Wanderland, her 2001 followup. To date, the album remains unavailable in America except as a high-priced import.
Since Kelis has more songwriting credits on Wanderland than on any of her other recordings, this state of affairs would seem apt to annoy her. It doesn't, she swears, adding that she isn't interested in seeing Wanderland receive a stateside reissue. "There's a great body of music on there, and I hold it very close to me," she says. "But I believe in the future. I'm not the same person I was three years ago. Three years is a pretty large gap. Time and age are what make the difference."
Tasty -- put out by Arista/Star Trak, not Virgin -- isn't quite a declaration of independence, but it does distance her from the Neptunes. Williams and Hugo produce four songs on the CD, but despite the success of "Milkshake," she makes it plain that the partnership is at an end. "It had to happen," she says. "Growth was a part of it."
The disc finds her already keeping company with other sound sculptors -- most notably Dallas Austin, who helmed TLC's biggest successes, D'Angelo cohort Raphael Saadiq and rap groundbreaker Nas, who just happens to be Kelis's fiancé. Whereas onetime Nas enemy Jay-Z has been coy about his relationship with Beyoncé Knowles, Nas himself shows no such compunction when it comes to his significantly voluptuous other. He cameos in the "Milkshake" video as a short-order cook, his tattoo of a topless Kelis is seen in the Tasty package, and his duet with her on "In Public" sports one of the freest imaginable Shakespearean interpretations: "The pussy or the mouth/That is the question." Kelis is generous with compliments about Nas ("There's never been anyone like him, and I highly doubt there ever will be"), but brushes aside rumors of a wedding date this year with a single word: "Maybe."
Like Nas, who once raised doubts about the identity of 9/11 conspirators during a Westword interview ("Fighting the Power," March 21, 2002), Kelis is attracted to conspiracy theories. The firestorm that followed the semi-baring of Janet Jackson's breast at this year's Super Bowl halftime festivities was "all a ploy," she says. "The media doesn't want us to focus on the fact that we're bombing families. I think it's all to distract us." She's equally suspicious of self-appointed virtue cops who've used the Jackson incident to justify another round of attacks on sexuality in popular culture, but admits that she's paying attention to shifting standards.
"I definitely do think about that," she says. "Artistically, there may be places that I'd like to go and stuff that I'd like to do, but as a 'role model,' I don't go there. It's inappropriate. So there's got to be a line drawn.
"I probably wouldn't be as aware of all this if I wasn't kind of like a stepmother and an aunt and an older sister," she continues. "You know what I'm saying? I have all these little girls in my life. It makes you notice things a lot more than if you don't really see them much." For one thing, she realizes that "kids today watch so much more television than I used to watch."
Maybe it's because of all those breasts.