Happy birthday ‘Flesh Tone’! Kelis’s masterwork turns 10

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Score: 9.0/10

10 years on from its release, Kelis’s EDM experiment is still an uplifting celebration of club culture and motherhood.  

I wouldn’t normally consider will.i.am a staunch defender of arty and sophisticated dance-pop. This is a man who once thought it appropriate to rap ‘this beat is the shit / faeces!’ on a harrowing collaboration with J-Lo and Mick Jagger. Will is flawed, but I can’t begrudge anyone who helped bring one of my all-time favourite records to fruition.

In 2010, things were looking a bit rocky for Kelis. Her fourth album, 2006’s sprawling Kelis Was Here, failed to produce a single as inescapable as 2003’s career-defining ‘Milkshake’. Jive Records issued a bargain bin hits collection and parted ways with an R&B maverick caught between two extremes: too alt for the pop crowd and too pop for the alt crowd. 

Kelis peaced out of the music industry, qualified as a saucier at Le Cordon Bleu, and fell pregnant towards the end of a fraught marriage with rapper Nas. She was pregnant with son Knight when she started recording what would become Flesh Tone in her garage. The indie dance project was originally developed with Cee-Lo Green, until a wise man named will.i.am persuaded Kelis to get back in the major label game with a deal on his own imprint via Interscope Records. 

“The cool people know Kelis”

That’s right. He who once wrote a song about The Pussycat Dolls giving him sass for masturbating in public had the foresight to understand that Kelis’s disco reinvention would deserve the world’s attention. He even offered fan-girly soundbites like “the cool people know Kelis” (correct) and “The Black Eyed Peas are big; I think Kelis can be that big” (hmm).

Will’s PR bluster might have proved too optimistic, but his support helped secure an elite transatlantic team of DJs and producers, including David Guetta, Benny Banassi, Boys Noize, Free School and DJ Ammo

Kelis’s brief was simple: make ‘em sweat. The idea conveniently aligned with the late 00s/early 10s EDM boom, when the likes of Guetta and Lady Gaga were beginning to normalise watered-down eurodance beats on US airwaves. Yet the execution was characteristically original – culminating in an uplifting celebration of club culture and motherhood.  

Club expertise

Kelis and her nocturnal collective came equipped with decades of club expertise between them, and Flesh Tone doesn’t waste a drop. 

It’s actually designed to play like a perfect 38-minute DJ set, offering nine straight-up bangers in a row, stitched together by intriguing segues. Only ‘Emancipate’’s bludgeoning chorus threatens to disrupt the flow, but even that kicks off with a brilliant opening line: ‘Let me tell you what love is / It’s when you meet each other halfway / I’m en route.’ 

From the sour computerised groans that power ‘Intro’, to the warm, flugelhorn-assisted disco finale of ‘Song for the Baby’, the album transports you to the foggiest, most hedonistic underground Berlin night club you can imagine. 

The omnipresent four-on-the-floor beat rattles through your eardrums and your heart. Swathes of shapeshifting synths evoke a charged, almost claustrophobic night club atmosphere. On ‘Scream’, Kelis even tells us to ‘push back’. Ostensibly she’s referring to pushing back on the people who bring us down in day-to-day life, but the line could just as easily be her expert survival tip for not drowning in a sea of sweaty ravers. 

After a decade of sporadic dance collabs, Kelis relished the chance to become a fully-fledged dance floor dominatrix. Her voice is made for the genre – from husky belts and angelic harmonies, to icy spoken sections (‘22nd Century’ is prefaced by a reminder that ‘We… control… the dance… floor’). 

A secret weapon

It’s rather beautiful to imagine Kelis adopting her new persona in the recording booth, pregnant with her first child, because that’s who she is singing to for the most part. Her songs encounter a medley of personal hurdles, most notably her toxic relationship with Nas, but almost every tale is punctuated with a triumph over adversity. 

The solemn ‘Brave’ reflects on both the music industry and Kelis’s marriage (‘I had to give it up’), but it’s also blessed with a big, dumb Benny Benassi synth riff á la ‘Satisfaction’ that makes it impossible to take too seriously. Flesh Tone is optimistic out of pure necessity – that’s how Kelis wanted her baby to feel when they eventually listen to it. 

The euphoria arguably peaks with ‘Acapella’, a thumping Guetta-produced smash that is still rivalled only by Madonna’s ‘Ray of Light’ as the most transcendent ode to maternal love to ever hit the dance floor. 

But it’s just one of the many anthems that Knight can boast about inspiring as a zygote when he’s a little older. ‘Home’ sprays out trance synths that cut through like laser beams, and although ‘4th of July (Fireworks)’ has a storied history (an interpolation of a remix of a Canadian indie-rock number called ‘You’re My Heart’) you’d never be able to tell by its smooth beachside piano-house. 

Few pop albums can match Flesh Tone’s synthesis of nosebleed electronica and raw vulnerability. It’s ironic that this 10th anniversary should arrive at a time when no one knows when we’ll next be in a position to socialise on a dance floor. But until mankind can safely share that connection again, this palpably human record will have to suffice.