Vintage Q&A with Kelis

It’s time once again for a trip to the past – the recent past, when every boy, man and elderly dude doddering toward the grave was singing about Kelis Rogers’ breasts.

In the following Q&A, conducted for a March 4, 2004 profile, Kelis proved to be bright and blunt. She chalked up the success of “Milkshake,” her mammary-centric smash single, to its lack of seriousness, yet most of her answers were far from frothy. She declined to elaborate on her split from the Neptunes, the creative team behind the song, and spilled next to nothing about impending nuptials with her beloved, rap kingpin Nas. However, she opened up, at least in comparison with most of her comments, when the topic turned to the backlash against sexuality in popular culture, the pressure on her to act as a role model for young women, and her contention that the music scene is a joke.

Not that she found it particularly funny.

Westword (Michael Roberts): “Milkshake” is one of those singles that has just taken over the airwaves. When you were making it, did you think it would have that effect?

Kelis Rogers: I knew right away that it was a really good song, and it was the one that I wanted to be the first single. But I don’t know that I knew exactly what was going to happen with it. I just knew that it was where I wanted to be.

WW: So does its success surprise you?

KR: It made sense to me, actually, because, the way music is right now, there was nothing else like it. I knew it was fun, and it didn’t take itself too seriously.

WW: Are there a lot of artists out there you see as pretentious?

KR: I think there are a lot of artists out there who take themselves too seriously.

WW: Does the song’s success make up for some of the frustrations that preceded it – like your second album not even getting a proper release in the United States?

KR: No.

WW: But you’d prefer to look forward instead of back?

KR: Yeah, totally. There’s a great body of music on there, and I hold it very close to me. But I believe in the future and change. I’m not the same person I was three years ago. Three years is a pretty large gap.

WW: How are you different?

KR: Time and age are what make the difference. It’s inevitable, and they’ve helped me grow as an artist.

WW: Do you see that growth continuing?

KR: Absolutely. I haven’t made my best music yet. Time and age are two of the most important things for an artist. I’m always doing some kind of writing. I write all the time, really more for myself than for anyone else. If I write anything that I think I need to share, I’ll do it, but really, I write for me.

WW: What kinds of things do you write?

KR: All kinds. Sometimes it’s just words. Sometimes it’s stories. I change it all the time.

WW: From the beginning of your career, you’ve worked with a wide array of collaborators. What was the experience of working with ODB like? Was he completely off the wall?

KR: He’s great. He’s a great artist. He’s an incredible artist, and at the end of the day, as long as the work gets done, that’s what matters. He’s great.

WW: For a long time, you’ve been closely associated with the Neptunes, but I get the sense that your collaboration with them has just about run its course. Is that right?

KR: Yes.

WW: Any regrets about that?

KR: I just think it was inevitable.

WW: Do you feel the need to stretch your wings and prove that you don’t need them to make great music?

KR: Not exactly, but I do think growth is part of it.

WW: Have there been some business problems working with them as well?

KR: Not, not really. I just think change is good.

WW: There’s also a track on the new album featuring Nas, who’s one of the best artists ever in hip-hop. What is it about him that makes his work so strong?

KR: I think the fact that he’s a real artist. And I also think he stands alone. There’s never been anyone like him, and I highly doubt there ever will be anyone like him.

WW: I read that the two of you have set a wedding date. Will it happen this year?

KR: Maybe.

WW: Right now, there are a lot of websites devoted to you, and most of them seem very caught up in your sexuality. Is that okay with you? Is it weird to know that there’s probably someone out there fantasizing about you at this very moment?

KR: I think it’s kind of divided. Part of me is very comfortable in my own skin and the other part of me is very human.

WW: Does that kind of thing make you self-conscious, particularly when you’re recording?

KR: Not really. I think sometimes it’s more in my own private life that I have those moments. When I’m working, I know exactly what I’m doing, and I’m very clear about where I’m going.

WW: There seems to be a growing backlash against sexuality in popular culture. Take what happened with Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl. Do you think that controversy was overblown?

KR: I think it was completely overblown. I think it’s all a ploy. The media doesn’t want us to focus on the fact that we’re bombing families. I think it’s all to distract us.

WW: You’ve come in for your share of criticism, too, particularly from the religious right. Have you heard people say negative things about you in that context?

KR: Not to my face, but I’m sure they do. Yeah, pretty much.

WW: A lot of the talk is about whether or not you’re projecting a positive image to young women out there.

KR: Yeah, and I don’t know where that comes from. But I definitely do think about that. Because artistically, there may be places that I’d like to go and stuff that I’d like to do that as a quote-unquote role model or whatever, I don’t go there. It’s inappropriate. So definitely there’s got to be a line drawn. It’s hard.

WW: So have you consciously set out to be a role model?

KR: Not at all. Don’t get me wrong. The last thing I want to be is a role model. You know what I’m saying? That’s never been something that I’ve wanted to be, or a goal of mine. I just find it inevitable. Whether I’m good or bad or whatever, there are people watching me. Forget the people. 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. It’s hard, because my artistic integrity tells me to do one thing, but my morality and my sense of reality, I guess, is telling me something else.

WW: That’s a tough balance to strike.

KR: It’s hard, and I probably wouldn’t be as aware if I wasn’t kind of like a stepmother and an aunt and the older sister of a cousin. You know what I’m saying. I have all these little girls in my life. It makes you a lot more aware than if you don’t really see them, you know what I mean?

WW: So you think popular culture has an affect on kids?

KR: Definitely. Kids today watch so much more television than I used to watch.

WW: What are the things on TV that worry you the most?

KR: I don’t single anything out in particular, but I’m definitely aware.

WW: “Milkshake” has been nominated for a Grammy – and I read you quoted somewhere calling your competition in that category “a joke.” Were you quoted accurately? Or was someone just trying to stir things up?

KR: I don’t know where that came from. I definitely didn’t say that. People have always taken the words I’ve said and twisted them into something else. Yeah, most likely what I would have said is, “Music today is a joke,” because I can totally stand by that comment. But I do think the people in the category I was nominated in are probably the best of the bunch. At least some of them. There are obviously some exceptions. But I don’t know. I’m very clear about the things that I feel and people like to take that and twist it into some evil kind of thing. But I don’t know where that came from.

WW: What’s so wrong with the music scene right now in your eyes?

KR: I just really think people need to take more chances. It’s hard, because radio is such a big part of our musical expansion – although I’ve been supported greatly by radio, and I’m grateful to all of them. But it’s hard. It’s really hard. I don’t know – I just think artists need to take more chances, and labels should take more chances with artists.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts