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
Breasts: Kids love 'em! Grown men, too -- and while Ruben Studdard has a nice set, most dudes prefer the ones on women. Why? Chemistry. See that guy across the room from you? His testosterone started boiling the second he first registered the joys of feminine pulchritude, and it probably won't stop until his relatives are picking out his coffin.
The creative team behind the video for "Milkshake," the Kelis mega-hit, understands this fascination, and takes cruel and unusual advantage of it. The title refers to jiggling hooters, and in the clip -- set in a diner filled with flirty waitresses and panting fellas unable to keep their eyeballs in their sockets -- the miraculously endowed Kelis (last name Rogers) demonstrates a handful of ways to move them around: the slow, side-to-side wobble, the roiling, full-body shimmy, the mid-orgasmic, serpentine undulation and so on. As a bonus, she demonstrates Playboy Channel-approved techniques pertaining to several other anatomical pleasure points. At times, she's seen gnawing on a Maraschino cherry in lip-smacking close-up, sucking her pinky, blowing bubbles into a frosty beverage, mounting a counter to deliver some well-aimed pelvic thrusts and displaying ass cleavage while bending over to pull (I'm serious) two buns from an oven. That last move should drive the nation's plumbers insane!
A compendium of erotic action sprinkled with humor, the video helps explain why "Milkshake" has been embraced by uncounted thousands of horny male teenagers and twenty-somethings a lot like them. But the song's clever, irresistible variation on jump-rope rhythms, devised by the production duo of Pharrell Williams and recent Westword profile subject Chad Hugo ("N.E.R.D. Alert," August 14, 2003), has also made it a favorite of grade-schoolers from coast to coast. The sudden explosion in the number of youngsters on her bandwagon has left Kelis with an interesting dilemma. Should she soften her style in an acknowledgment of tender eyes and ears, or simply ignore the demographic mutations in order to keep her sexually mature constituency (very) satisfied?
Any answer to this question carries repercussions, as Kelis acknowledges. She may be touring with Britney Spears, who's gone from naughty schoolgirl to sloppy, drunken embarrassment in five years flat, but she isn't entirely blind to responsibility. "Don't get me wrong -- the last thing I want to be is a role model," she says. "That's never been something that I've wanted, never been a goal of mine. I just find it inevitable. Whether I'm good or bad or whatever, there are people watching me."
After the briefest of pauses, she changes course. "Forget the people," she declares. "It's the kids. I could care less about the people. They're adults. They can make their own choices. The kids are more important, because they're a lot more impressionable. And although I don't want to be the one who decides anything for them, some of them look to me for, well, a way. So it's hard. My artistic integrity tells me to do one thing, but my morality and my sense of reality, I guess, is telling me something else."
As these observations indicate, Kelis's bosoms are supplemented by a fully functioning brain. Far from being an inarticulate love object, she's bright, opinionated and occasionally caustic. Just prior to last month's Grammy Awards telecast, for instance, she was quoted dissing OutKast, Musiq, Les Nubians and Erykah Badu, who, like her, were nominated in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category. "I look at the other nominees and I don't feel honored," she allegedly said. "It's a joke."
When asked about these comments, Kelis insists that they were placed in an incorrect context. "I don't know where that came from," she says, adding, "People have always taken my words and twisted them into something else."
This defense is hardly original, but Kelis makes a particularly good case for it. After all, OutKast's Andre 3000, whose across-the-board smash, "Hey Ya!," bested "Milkshake" in the Grammy vote, is a guest on Kelis's latest recording, the consistently enjoyable Tasty; they pair on "Millionaire," an alluringly jittery groover larded with synthetic backbeats. Besides, Kelis's amended remarks are just as potentially incendiary as those she denies uttering.
"Most likely what I would have said is, 'Music today is a joke,' because I can totally stand by that comment," she maintains. "I think the people in the category I was nominated in are probably the best of the bunch. But most artists need to take a lot more chances."
Kelis certainly has, both professionally and personally. A Harlem native and self-confessed wild child, she was on her own by age sixteen. But, through her attendance at the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts (the institution that inspired the setting for the movie and TV series Fame), she came to the attention of numerous rap scensters, including the RZA, who served as the sonic architect of the Wu-Tang Clan. The RZA subsequently employed Kelis on 1997's The Pick, the Sickle & the Shovel by the Gravediggaz, one of his side projects. Later, Kelis crooned the hook for "Got Your Money," an authentic piece of hip-hop folk art found on 1999's Nigga Please, an album by Clan member/idiot savant Ol' Dirty Bastard. ODB doesn't just have a screw loose; he's missing the entire hardware store. Unfortunately, Kelis keeps any tales of lunacy she may have witnessed to herself. "He's an incredible artist," she says, "and at the end of the day, as long as the work gets done, that's what matters."
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.