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

Stream on Spotify

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.

[Music] Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint (review)

Niki Minaj

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: There was a delightfully abrasive moment during Nicki Minaj’s guest turn on Ciara’s 2014 single “I’m Out” where talk of “big fat titties when they’re hangin’ out my tank-top” unexpectedly scanned as an ideological move that only the Trinidadian rapper could make. There was nothing smart about the image the lyric created, while the slippery zaniness with which it was delivered rendered it deliberately unsexy. But with Minaj’s name now synonymous with the current hip-hop landscape, it seemed she had shrewdly adopted the cartoonish arrogance of buddies Lil Wayne, Kanye et al in a manner that was apathetic to their male gaze, with indecorous terms such as “fat” and “hanging” instead holding up a positive reflection of the wordsmith’s perceptible body image.

This crass and brazen expression of sexuality was somewhat built upon on “Anaconda”, the inescapable, Sir Mix-A-Lot-sampling summer hit that served as the The Pinkprint‘s second single. The difference this time was that everything about “Anaconda” – from its meme-magnet artwork to its risibly gratuitous video demanded both our attention and our approval. The track’s reliance on creeping guitar plucks and culturally-embedded lyrics derived from “Baby Got Back” was disappointing given the manic energy Minaj poured into verses that stand toe-to-toe with similarly globe-trotting accounts of sexual conquests in Afroman’s “Crazy Rap” and Lil Kim’s “How Many Licks”. The Pinkprint’s clever sequencing follows it up with the EDM headache “The Night Is Still Young”, allowing for an immediate comparison that narrowly spares “Anaconda” from being labeled the collection’s most reductive effort.

This conspicuous pair of chart-friendly contingency plans are undoubtedly the album’s nadir, as even despite additional smatterings of on-trend radio fodder – such as the “Dark Horse”-aping Dr. Luke production “Get On Your Knees”, boosted by a sensual vocal from hook girl Ariana Grande – The Pinkprint primarily divides its attention between introspective mid-tempo R&B and tough, focused exercises in trap-inflected hip-hop. It’s an occasionally jarring dichotomy, but the overarching quality of the music allows such sins to be forgiven. Giving credence to her alleged Enya inspiration, “All Things Go” and “I Lied” get things off to a slow, ethereal start, but the lack of posturing within Minaj’s sensitive verses is refreshing. The similarly styled “The Crying Game” has prickly rock undertones that help further animate Jessie Ware’s bizarrely uncredited turn on the song’s chorus.

On the ballsier half of the album, “Trini Dem Girls” proposes exoticism (“Jamaica dem girls gonna park the pum pum”) over a laudably colourless, handclap-heavy beat, “Four Door Aventador” casts a spell with its mumbled chorus and smoky atmosphere, while the pondering trap beat of third single “Only”, featuring Drake, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown, oscillates between mild interest and tedium depending on who’s on the mic. (Note: Both Drake and Lil Wayne are better utilised on the twerk-ready iTunes bonus track “Truffle Butter”.)

On The Pinkprint, Minaj has refined almost every branch of her musical output, with the notable exception of her adventures in EDM, which really should have been left to fester on 2010’s Roman Reloaded. Its quieter moments surpass the aural mush she peddled on her debut, while the lion’s share of the more overtly hip-hop tracks show a sense of conviction unseen since “Roman’s Revenge”. Our only gripe is with a title that stands as nothing more than a tip of the hat to Jay-Z‘s The Blueprint. Sure, every fingerprint may be unique, but shouldn’t a woman as talented as Minaj be looking to leave a bigger mark on the world?

8.5/10