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First Listen: Kelis, 'Food'

Kelis' new album,<em> Food</em>, comes out April 22.
Laurent Levy
Courtesy of the artist
Kelis' new album, Food, comes out April 22.

Food is life. It's the connective tissue between families, communities and cultures. At base, it's sustenance, and at its most complex, like when it appears in song, it can evoke nostalgia, carnal desires and comfort. For Kelis Rogers, R&B's resident provocateur, Food — her first album since 2010's dance-heavy Flesh Tone — is the embodiment of what she has always contended as an artist: that she can't be molded to fit inside one genre — one flavor, one dish, one cuisine.

Since her first blip on the radar in 1999 as the hook singer on Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money," Kelis' work has run the gamut of musical experimentation; her approach has been nothing less than bombastic. Whether she was screaming about how much she hates you, spearheading the shift toward a new R&B sound or diving into the world of electronic dance music, Kelis has never been one to sound subdued or stagnant.

At 34 years old — post divorce, contract liberation and since becoming a mother — Kelis is beyond the point of trying to fit into any box that the industry has tried to squash her into, whether it was a label with misgivings or a radio station that couldn't figure out where she belonged. In flipping her sound once again, she found an unlikely partnership with indie/art-rocker Dave Sitek (of TV on the Radio fame) and the 13-piece band that came with him. The result is songs that we'd never have expected from the singer. Instead of playing her position and exploring with futuristic interpretations, Kelis tips her hat to the past with a palette that revels in soul, doo-wop and layered girl-group harmonies. It's a pace further away from the massive hit song that, more than a decade later, refuses to go down.

But there are also moments on Food when it seems that two steps toward a new life are stalled by a backward stumble to a not-so-forgotten past. On tracks like "Rumble," you can hear a mixture of relief and reluctance as she repeats, "I'm so glad you gave back my keys." There's no authority in the way she says it, but in the end, she's persistent enough that she's convincing herself, if nobody else.

With her signature throaty growl, Kelis relays what she needs throughout Food. Whether she's asking for something as deceptively simple as ice-cold water in a song like "Friday Fish Fry," or something as complicated as love itself on songs like "Floyd," where she huskily, sweetly, sings, "I want to be blown away," Food represents Kelis' most heartfelt demand — graciously intoned, especially compared to the ways she has insisted before — that we acknowledge where she is now.

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Kiana Fitzgerald is a freelance music journalist, cultural critic, and DJ. She writes for the world from deep in the heart of Texas.