When Kelis starts singing on “Jerk Ribs,” one of the two songs that are already available from her upcoming album, Food, her voice is breathy and scratchy, maybe a little flat on some notes. I think we could fairly call it “imperfect.” Imperfect voices in pop music, in the kind of music you hear on the radio, are usually a liability. But this song is great.
Kelis can even make that Pro-tools digital sound work for her — see “Brave” — but the tinny quality of her voice matches what’s going on in the rhythm section and with the whistle in “Jerk Ribs.” It sits above the horn section and the piano and allows them to really fill up the song. Her voice is doing exactly what this song needs it to do.
I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with another artist who has gotten played on the radio in my lifetime, beside Kelis, who takes the limitations of his or her voice and so expertly transforms them into an asset that strengthens her art. The only other person I could come up with is Don Williams. So, basically, no one. One of the most underrated country stars in history and her. That’s it. But at least Don Williams is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Does anyone recognize Kelis for the genius she is?
Kelis is actually an experimental artist, and her music is about pushing the boundaries of what a pop song is to see how far they’ll hold. And my theory is, she goes unrecognized as an experimental artist because her experiments are so catchy and fun to listen to. Because they work.
Check out “Rumble,” the other song we’ve heard from Food. There’s a way a song like this is supposed to work, a way we’ve all heard a million times: The singer sings her heartfelt verses, there’s a chorus where the backup singers come in and the singer wails over them.
Not Kelis. The backup singers come in on the chorus, alone. Kelis never joins in. Any other artist doing this song would be unable to resist the urge to fill this moment with melismata. Kelis doesn’t even bother to sing, she just turns over the emotion of the chorus to the horns. The kind of emotional work you’d expect to find her doing, either during the chorus or at the end of the song after having built up to it, happens for just 15 seconds right in the middle of the song at 1:50. The song ends with the backup singers just doing their back-up singing.
To put it simply, this song has the wrong shape. Things are not where they’re supposed to be. Noises are not made when the listener expects them to be made. It works as a song, because it’s a successful experiment, but it’s an experiment.
Even her most popular song, “Milkshake,” is an experiment in making an earworm that doesn’t suck. The ’60s and early ’70s were the heyday of songs that seemed designed to stick in your head. They have traits in common: They’re corny, have a driving rhythm, and the difference between the verses and the chorus is dramatic. Think of a song like “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies. The “sugar, aw, honey, honey. You are my candy girl and you got me wanting you” part is the part that gets stuck in your head, because it’s sing-songy and has that ba ba bah ba bap ba part behind it. It’s very different than the “I just can’t believe the loveliness of loving you” part, which has a more urgent, steady rhythm driving it.
You can hear the same thing in Hot Legs’ “Neanderthal Man” (warning: if you’ve never heard this song before, it will get stuck in your head. It will not come out.) A driving rhythm, corny lyrics, and a huge shift between how the verses (such as they are) sound and how the “Neanderthal man” part backed up by strings sounds. Even a song like Ice T’s “99 Problems” hews really close to this formula. It’s corny, catchy, and the catchy part –“If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son. I’ve got ninety-nine problems, but a bitch ain’t one”–being so catchy and standing out from the rest of the song rhythmically that it’s hooked its way into a number of other songs.
Keeping those songs in mind (and how can you not?), go back and listen to “Milkshake” again. It’s all there: The driving, prominent rhythm, the corniness, and the vast change in sound between the “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard” part and the verses. But, if you can, don’t listen to the words. Just listen to how the song sounds. It’s really ominous. It’s catchy, but it’s creepy.
Now here’s the real question: Aren’t all those other songs? It’s hard to hear the creepiness of them, because the melodies are so upbeat, but the endless insistence that the women about whom the men are singing take care of their needs starts to feel oppressive about the third time through (and the songs seem designed to repeat endlessly in your head). Kelis’s minor-key “la la”s just bring to the music what was always in the lyrics of this kind of song. Her song is still catchy and corny, but that change in key makes “Milkshake” both a novelty song and a critique of that kind of novelty song. She’s made a smart song in the stupid earworm genre.
Would you still love a corny novelty song if you couldn’t ignore the creepy undertones? Would you still want to hear a song about ambiguous feelings about an old lover if it didn’t have a proper chorus? Can a raspy, tinny voice make you want to dance? With Kelis, the answer is always yes.
It’s time she got credit for that.