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] Top 20 Tracks of 2014, Part One (#10 – #1)

Tracks #20 – #11 Recap 

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10. Ben Khan – Youth, 1992 E.P.

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Available to buy on iTunes

On his debut E.P., London-born musician Ben Khan melds spirited guitar licks with soft, sugary synths and his own smoky tones. Standout track “Youth” adds gun clicks and spectral wails, providing an adventurous soundscape that offsets the cautionary lyrics. One to watch.

See also:Savage”, “Drive, Pt. 1

9. Coldplay – “Magic”, Ghost Stories

Available to buy on iTunes

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Gone are the homogenised chunks of Sky Sports advert-friendly pop-rock that Coldplay been both praised and reviled for over the years – “Magic” is a tasteful (and possibly unrequited) love letter recounted over bristling bass plucks, soft piano and ghostly atmospherics from producer Paul Epworth (Florence and the Machine, Adele).

With his voice front and centre throughout, Chris Martin’s pained falsetto splinters at all the right moments, but it’s the emotional sucker punch of a one-sided conversation come the finale that makes the band’s chart resilience something to cherish.

See also: Midnight

8. Veruca Salt – “The Museum of Broken Relationships”, TBA

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Available to buy from iTunes 

A reunion of Veruca Salt’s original line-up was so inconceivable for fans of the Chicago alt-pop-rock foursome that to see high-profile publications such as Pitchfork and Rolling Stone – who gave the group’s final record together a damning one and a half stars back in 1997 – come out to praise their latest track “The Museum of Broken Relationships” was merely icing on the cake.

It was only fitting, then, that this uncoiling bundle of frothy garage rock drips with Generation X apathy. “He loves me again” frontwomen Nina Gordon and Louise Post sing before clarifying their own stance on the matter: “I. DON’T. CARE!” The track breaks down into a storm of dark, jagged guitar and elated whoops, celebrating the re-arrival of a group who’ve transcended the need for industry approval.

See also:Seether“, “Volcano Girls

7. Ella Henderson – Ghost, Chapter One

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Available to buy on iTunes

Under normal circumstances, a two year wait between a X Factor contestant’s elimination and the release of their debut single is never a good sign. With a new roster of starry-eyed singers cropping up every year, it’s all too easy to slip through the cracks of the public’s consciousness. But the emergence of Gabriella ‘Ella’ Henderson this year is a rare case of a talent being nurtured, not just juiced for a quick buck.

Paired with One Republic frontman and don of the noughties power-ballad Ryan Tedder, Henderson concocted the gospel-tinged “Ghost”; a fusion of dry, testy verses and a tsunami-sized chorus, with an enraptured performance from Henderson that will make you a believer.

See also: “Believe” (Cher cover)

6. Cher Lloyd – Bind Your Love, Sorry I’m Late

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Available to buy on iTunes 

A self-proclaimed “brat” during her time on X Factor UK, Cher Lloyd was ill-served by the faux-urban EDM of “Swagger Jagger”, her first and only No. 1 single. Lloyd’s real strengths lie in either sweet’n’sour bubblegum pop (“Want U Back”) or graceful, rock-tinged torch songs (her cover of Shakespeare’s Sister’s “Stay”), with this cut from her latest album being a glossy combination of both.

See also:Sirens“, “I Wish” [feat. T.I.]

5. Beyoncé – Drunk In Love [feat. Jay Z], Beyoncé

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Available to buy on iTunes

On the closest thing Beyoncé’s guerilla album campaign had to a lead single, Mr. and Mrs. Carter update their marital status from “Crazy” to “Drunk” – and the shift is palpable.

In 2003, Bey was love’s bewildered victim. The symptoms were wild and incapacitating, but relatively innocent. Fast forward a decade and she’s a motor-mouthed potty-mouth with an obvious addiction. As endlessly quotable as they are, Bey’s punky, twisted verses also reveal a strong character at home with not only her sexuality, but her very being. To think millions of listeners have been exposed to a revered female saying she has no complaints with her body is a wonderful thing.

Jay’s Anna Mae faux-pas robs the song of a crack at full-on brilliance, which is a crying shame considering he otherwise adapts quite well to the track’s kinky irreverence, a tone kick-started by a sumptuously reverberating bass, finger-clicks and a Hatsune Miku-alike warble that may be very well be the best call to the dance floor since Britney famously declared her arrival. Bitch.

See also: Partition”, “Haunted”, “***Flawless

4. Katy B – Crying For No Reason, Little Red

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Available to buy on iTunes // Read our review of Little Red

There was a time in early 2014 where Brixton-born singer Katy B looked set to join the likes of Diana Vickers, Little Boots and Alexandra Burke in the Hall of Spurned British Females, pop stars who fell prey to the British music industry’s fickle nature. Tastemakers championed Katy as the Next Big Thing back in 2011, but last year saw the singles preceding her sophomore record struggle to go Top 10. As anyone who’s ever had a teary jive to “5 AM” will tell you, quality wasn’t an issue. So what was one of pop’s most lovable ingénues to do?

“Crying For No Reason” once again proves that every record label should have access to a big red button with the name “GUY CHAMBERS” on it. As a producer, Chambers is no stranger to commercial resurrections – even mid-campaign, as the success of Robbie William’s career-saving hit “Angels” will attest too – and his collaboration with Katy is a sprawling ballad, with spacey synths running parallel with an earnest piano riff before the song suddenly shifts towards breakstep territory.

Much of the excitement comes from the production being consistently on the verge of a Robyn-style dance-the-tears-away breakthrough, but Chambers never lets the clattering percussion overwhelm his star. Katy has never had a better showcase for her pure, gently accented voice, and the dexterity with which she ramps up the drama in the final chorus is captivating. In carefully choosing which buttons to push, she demonstrates the difference with painstaking acrobatics and simply flinging oneself from an unwise height.

See also: Still“, “Everything“, “Aaliyah” [feat. Jessie Ware]

3. Shamir – “If It Wasn’t True”, Northtown E.P.

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Available to buy on iTunes 

Las Vegas-born teenager Shamir Bailey boasts a raw, Nina Simone-alike timbre, one that effortlessly surfs the chilly house beats of his debut EP. On break-up track “If It Wasn’t True”, he summarises big emotions (“We can’t speak without a single shout”) with a knowingly dead-eyed delivery – that is until he trips what sounds like a nest of mechanised hornets, just in time for a last-minute eruption of relationship angst.

See also: I Know It’s A Good Thing“, “Sometimes A Man

2. Kelis – “Rumble”, FOOD

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Available to buy on iTunes // Read our review of FOOD

Thematically split between the joy of an estranged ex handing back their key and a last-minute appeal for them to stay, the swampy “Rumble” is almost a duet. But for every squall of “Baby, don’t go!”, there’s a dose of the iconoclastic diva we know and love (“We don’t need therapy / What I need is you to leave”), with the song’s relieved chorus suggesting a burgeoning independence.

See also:Jerk Ribs”, “Breakfast”, “Biscuits’n’Gravy

1. Clean Bandit – Rather Be [feat. Jess Glynne], New Eyes

Clean Bandit

Available to buy on iTunes 

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at XL Recordings when two executives find their argument over which direction the label cash cow Adele’s should take on her next LP interrupted by a spirited, string-laden ditty blaring from the office radio. Classy but catchy, sprightly but sagacious, and with a vocalist who has more than a few shades a certain Diamond-certified seller to her nuances, “Rather Be” is that rarest of things: a hit you can’t hate.

Dwelling on Jess Glynne’s appearance seems a little besides the point, however, considering she is merely one of a dozen singers to grace the band’s debut record. Primarily comprised of a bassist, cellist, violinist, and a drummer and keyboardist, Clean Bandit are a group who live to up their moniker with productions that are fresh, streamlined, and yes, clean, but rarely clinical.

Adding strings is a classic ploy for credibility in pop music – a crime Clean Bandit have arguably been guilty of previously – but on “Rather Be” they’re used almost exclusively to complement the accompanying piano and popping synths that signal the group’s deep house fascination.

For all the quartet’s musical finesse, however, it is Glynne who stands out as the track’s MVP. “Rather Be” may be a pleading love song, but it’s hard to recall the last time an artist made co-dependency sound quite so empowering.

See also: Extraordinary“, “Mozart’s House“, “Cologne

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[Music] Kelis – FOOD (review)

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Available to buy from April 21st on Ninja Tune Records.

Of all the noughties R&B divas to pre-empt every misogynist’s favourite punchline and get back in the kitchen, Kelis Rogers seemed the most unlikely. Alas, fifteen years on from her debut single “Caught Out There” becoming a neo-feminist anthem, FOOD sees Kelis don the persona of a soulful hausfrau. On “Floyd”, a shoegazer in the spirit of The Dark Side of the Moon’s more downtempo moments, we find her at her most co-dependent: “Sure I’m self-sufficient / Blah blah, independent / Truthfully I got some space I want that man fillin’.” More than a renouncement of her autonomy, Kelis’s sixth record is instead a celebration of our most carnal instincts, which she kindly boils down to fucking and dining over the course of thirteen tracks.

The record kicks off with a triptych of sunny, well-meaning mashes of soul-driven funk – including last year’s “Jerk Ribs”, which still shimmers like a lost Jackson 5 classic – but these are almost a clearing of the throat. The album’s latter half treks far more interesting terrain: “Change” mixes “White Rabbit”-esque brooding with James Bond-theme theatrics, the tidy piano riff of “Biscuits’n’Gravy” is interrupted by a rousing horn section, while “Rumble”’s one-line chorus (“I’m so glad you gave back my keys”) and balmy atmosphere demonstrates a serious progression from the senseless post-break-up rage of “Caught Out There”.

Dave Sitek’s warm, honeyed (if occasionally identikit) production fits Kelis’s voice like an oven-mitt. She’s offered far more room to experiment than on her 2010 dance album Flesh Tone, particularly on “Cobbler”, where the usually demure singer breaks into an impassioned operatic falsetto. And while the encompassing food theme does seem a bit arbitrary, big-band showstoppers “Cobbler” and “Fish Fry” both pop like hot oil.

7/10

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[Music] Top 35 Tracks of 2013 (#35 – #21)

35. Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines [feat. Pharrell and T.I.], Blurred Lines

Available from iTunes

YouTube-Bans-RB-Singers-Video-+18-2As divisive as the track may be, it would be churlish to ignore Robin Thicke’s monstrously successful ode to dodgy dance floor-based ethics when summing up the last year in music. The presence of the currently infallible Pharrell Williams and a warm, Marvin Gaye-aping instrumental – not to mention a notoriously ‘stripped-back’ promo video – combined to create a heady cocktail that had punters checking their social consciousnesses at the door. For better or for worse, “Blurred Lines” is the sound of pure carnal lust left unspoiled by the pressures of political correctness.

34. Britney Spears – Work Bitch, Britney Jean

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It would seem the record-buying public didn’t appreciate the irony of being told to work harder by one of the laziest ladies in pop, which may explain their apathy towards the first offering from Spears’ eighth studio album, Britney Jean. Following the ubiquity of last year’s “Scream & Shout”, launching with a Will.i.am-penned banger was a no-brainer, but no one could anticipate that their reunion could yield a song as devoid of grey matter as “Work Bitch”. What the track lacks in brains, however, it makes up for with the strength of its steely balls. Eschewing any form of tangible structure, relying on only a hard, repetitive beat and Spears’ trademark British accent, the song feels as alien to the wants of radio as the woman singing it feels removed from the wants of the industry, and in that sense it makes for a fascinating listen.

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