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Kelis: Perfectly Imperfect

Interviews

By Kim Taylor Bennett

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When I ask Kelis if she ever thinks about her son as a teenager and what it’ll be like for prospective girlfriends to come home and meet her, she let’s out a gleefully husky cackle.

“It’s going to be a nightmare—it’s going to suck!” she laughs. “I feel bad for him in a way, but I also want his standards to be impossible.”

Like all mothers, Kelis’s tone lifts when she’s talking about her son Knight. Born out of her eight-year relationship with now ex-husband Nas, Knight is only four years old and his tearaway teens are a long way off. Kelis describes him as “a brilliant, hilarious little man,” who recently began to understand what mom does for a living. Often when Kelis kisses him goodnight she’s covered in feathers and sequins. Knight now knows she’s a singer onstage. He’s a little less clear on what his dad gets up to professionally.

“He's like, ‘Daddy's got to go to work, he’s going to the airport, Dad works at the airport,’ laughs Kelis. “And I'm like, yes, yes he does.”

Perhaps Nas is a baggage handler at LAX? Kelis is tickled. “Yeah, he's this naggy TSA. Absolutely!” And she laughs again.

Today I meet Kelis at her home in LA, a spacious two-story structure with a neatly manicured lawn. Inside the décor treads the line between cozy and welcoming and glitzy boudoir chic: warmly worn red rugs break up the black hard wood floors (shoes off as you enter, please), there are imposing ornamental pillars and fat cream candles elevated high on floor-standing iron holders, and sparkly Moroccan pillows casually tossed on velvety sofas. In an alcove above a snakeskin vanity perches a regal white peacock, its plumes trailing down in front of the large gold gilt mirror below. In Kelis’ downstairs bathroom, propped up on the toilet tank, is some light reading: What Your Poo Says About You.

Outside it’s an LA-warm winter’s day; inside Kelis’s home it’s 80 degrees, just the way she likes it. A crew from the Cooking Channel buzz around the living room, setting up a pick-up shoot for the pilot of her cooking show, Saucy and Sweet (watch the full episode here). These days Kelis balances being a mother, singer, TV host and a saucier: she’s a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School—hence the show—and she has a line of signature sauces called Feast. The temperature starts to inch towards 85 as the crew flip on the bright lights and black out the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Forty-five minutes after I arrive, Kelis descends, camera-ready, in a tight magenta V-neck, matching fuschia lips, and curve-caressing jeans. She looks crazy-good. Better than she did when I interviewed her a full decade ago, in a London hotel room, as she chowed down on udon. Back then she was touting Tasty, her third record, which featured “Milkshake,” “Trick Me,” and “Millionaire”—each of them landmark jams that still stand up. Kelis savors thinly veiled sexual innuendo as much as soft focus romance. She’s always been able to flip, reverse it, and subvert expectations, and never more so than when she returned with 2010’s Flesh Tone, a dance album featuring David Guetta and Benny Benassi that she recorded when she was separating from Nas, pregnant with Knight, and unsigned. Not that she’s ever been put off by the record label runaround: her second album, Wonderland, floundered thanks to a label that lacked the balls to back her spiky, Neptunes-assisted, future-thinking R&B. It never saw the light of day in the States.

Her latest album, FOOD, is out on Ninja Tune on April 22. Produced by Dave Sitek, FOOD is about as far way from the Pro-Tooled euphoria of Flesh Tone as you can get. Instead, Kelis serves up a collection rich in organic instrumentation. It’s crammed with moments that will genuinely surprise, like the plush boy-girl harmonies of “Bless This Telephone,” with its plucked out acoustics recalling “Blackbird” by The Beatles, the breathy funk of “Hooch,” and the blues-y, Black Keys-like strut of “Rumble.” Additionally, her sixth album oozes bliss in every full-bodied groove and brass blast—from the writhing, descending bass of “Jerk Ribs,” to “Floyd,” with its sensuous bottom end and unhurried organ chords. Kelis sounds newly minted with positivity. She sounds happy, at peace.

“Thank you, I am,” she says. When did this contentment start to fall into place? “To be honest, when I got divorced,” she says, unblinking. “I think it's a combination of growing up and everything kind of settling itself out. Refocusing, recalibrating is important too.”

I sat down with Kelis to discuss her partnership with Sitek, notions of success, the lack of foreplay in pop, and why she doesn’t consider herself a feminist.

How was it working with Dave? This album feels like another shift in direction for you. Did he expose you to things that you felt that you hadn't encountered before musically? And outlook wise?
Kelis:
One of the things that I found really exceptional about Dave was—it's kind of an oxymoron—but he's very clear, but unimposing, which, especially as a producer, is a very strange dichotomy to have. It's great to work with, especially at this point in my life. There are times when I need more direction than others and this wasn't really one of those times. We didn't talk about music much. I don't know that there's anything new to show me at this point. You know, I’m a dinosaur.

You're not a dinosaur. Don't say you're a dinosaur because that makes me a dinosaur and then we're two dinosaurs hanging out together.
[Laughs] But I've been doing this for such a long time, you know, there's always new artists, but there's never anything new. And I'm not new and he's not new so it was nice because we were both very clear about who we were and what we're doing. The other thing is he only works with who he loves, and so he's comfortable to leave you alone which is a freaking very rare quality in a producer.

Have you felt in the past that producers have been a bit too forceful in terms of trying to push their vision onto what you're doing?
I wouldn't phrase it that way. I think a lot of things factor in. I was comfortable enough in my own skin to be left alone and Dave was comfortable enough with me to leave me alone. In the past, I was in a different place, working with different people and I think a producer's natural inclination is to produce. It's not that it's wrong, it's just that this was different, you know? And there's really only one other producer that I can really say walked away and would like let me be.

Who was that?
Raphael Saadiq is a really good one for that. He's really good at letting letting the artist breathe, and also, I think part of being a good producer is being a good facilitator. You have to have a trust in who it is you're working with because there's a difference between producing a record for someone and creating something with someone. This particular era in my life I needed a partner as opposed to a leader, and so Dave was a really exceptional partner. He's unforgiving and he's relentless and he's brilliant and very strange, and in all the best ways. I'm perfectly not a perfectionist. And so I'm actually okay with my flaws and I'm okay with being flawed. There's a perfection in it, I find. And so he's exactly the same way.

And do you think you've always not been a perfectionist? Because with so many artists it’s the case where they’re obsessive, exacting, and relentlessly ambitious…
I'm perfectly not a perfectionist. I'm okay with my flaws and I'm okay with being flawed. There's a perfection in it, I find. And so Dave’s exactly the same way. I don't know if it comes from boredom or fear or laziness or confidence, but when I'm done, I'm done. I have no desire to go back.

Some people wonder why you're not bigger than you are. I'm curious if maybe people like artists they can associate with a single sound or look. Obviously there are exceptions to this, Madonna being the obvious one, but do you feel like perhaps the reason you’re not ginormous is because your sound is pretty eclectic from one record to the next?
No. I think a lot of things factor in actually. The first thing is I'm not willing to do what it takes—I don't believe in it enough.

Believe in that idea of enormous success? Because obviously you believe in the music.
I believe in it enough to enjoy it, but I don't believe the hype and I take it for what it is. Let's start off with the fact that I grew up with music my entire life. I grew up with jazz musicians and they never got their due. They were never ginormous and they were some of the most talented people of their era. My understanding of music comes from that place. I watch my father and his friends and it's so strange, actually, because it didn't occur to me until way too late that this had become my life and that I devoted myself to this. This was never the plan. Ever.

What was the plan?
The plan was to be on Broadway, I wanted to do musical theater. So fame’s not really in the cards when you're talking about musical theater—it's more about credibility, your art, and your craft. So for me, this whole thing took me by surprise because it was never the plan. And I actually maintain a lack of awareness even to this day. So that I don't really know what my position really is. I have an idea enough to maneuver my way through, but I don't really know how people see me. And like I said, I'm not willing to give what it takes. And I'm too opinionated. And I'm too sensitive. And I don't care enough. And I really like my privacy. [Laughs] Then on top of that, I realized halfway through, I actually don't want it. I really don't want it. Right when I was releasing Kelis Was Here, I realized whoa, wait, hands off. I got scared. I started this when I was 17 years old. I signed my first deal and I had no idea. I had no idea what to expect or what this was or what I'd signed up for. People are like, "You signed up for it." I'm like, "Seriously, bite me, I did not." Like who says that?

It was also a very different age back then.
Totally. And that's the funny thing, I came out on the cusp when the music industry was a totally different industry. And then there's like the logistical side of it where—and I happen to think has a lot to do with what God has had in my life—it's no coincidence that [with] like every label that I was on, something happened. Every time. With certain things I'm like, "Not interested. Thanks but no thanks." But then there's the other aspect where it's completely out of my hands, where the entire staff of 100-something people who are all in charge of my project got fired. You know, then this label folds, then I get shipped off to this label. All these things that were completely out of my hands happened just as I was about to release Kelis Was Here and I felt like I was in this race that I didn't sign up for. I wanted everything to stop. Get me off this train.

What was the realization that came after that?
That this is fun and it's a blessing and it's nice to be recognized for the work, but for me all of that is very nominal in comparison to all the sacrifice that it takes. For who I am and the life that I want and the woman that I want to be able to have people say when this is all done about me—that doesn't fit in that for me. Also there's always been some sense of critical acclaim about what I've done—it's always been pivotal in where music is, I've always been able to say my piece and I decided that was enough. It wasn't about getting bigger, because bigger than what? It's not so much about being complacent because I'm definitely not, it's just where I hold my value and what is valuable to me.

Let's talk about the style of this record in terms of how you're going to be presenting yourself because you do like to dress up and play with image and characters. This one's a bit more retro, your hair's a bit bigger. Big hair is pure glamor to me.

It is, absolutely. I love big hair. I'm like a French roll for just daytime please. I feel like everything has gotten really too perfect, too contrived, and too sexy. We’re totally desensitized at this point. You see a woman or a man, they're grinding and writhing and no one thinks anything of it now and I'm like it's not even sexy anymore. There's no flirtation, there's no foreplay, and there's no kind of like tantalizing of the senses at all. So I want to be a lady. I have three sisters and we basically grew up in finishing school; we were all at attention all the time. One of my first memories, in terms of visual association, is always my mom’s red nails and red lips. And to this day she'll go to the gym and she's got lipstick on. It’s funny to me, but she comes from a different era. She was born in 1950, and it's just a totally different time and I love that. I want to be a lady, I want to have curves, I want to be plump in the right places. I want to be made up. I want to care. And it's fun. So right now it's about really being a woman and what that can look like, you know, without it being like, crotchless pants. Which, you know... time and place [laughs] … But there's lot of that right now. And so let's just try another angle.

As an adjunct to that, it’s always a surprise to me that you don't consider yourself a feminist. I understand you like to be a woman and why would you want to be a man, but to surely feminism is about being treated as an equal.
There’s two parts to it. To answer the question properly you do have to know what that person perceives as feminism because there are so many different avenues that people take when it comes to feminism. To me, usually feminism is presented like, “I don't shave my armpits and I have to walk around like a butch all day.” That doesn’t represent feminism to me.

That’s more an antiquated vision of feminism, than what it’s actually about.
It is, but somehow I think that’s used more often than not. Also a lot of times whenever someone talks about, whether I'm a feminist or not, it usually pertains to my sexuality, what I'm wearing and really how comfortable I am being female. Now that I'm a mother, everyone's like, "Well now that you're a mother…" I'm like, I don't even know that I understand the question…

What? Now that you're a mother, you're supposed to behave a certain way?
Right. And to me, you know, yes, there are inevitable changes and shifting, but I am very comfortable playing the role of a woman. There are roles to be played. The problem in society in general is no one wants to play their position and if everybody wants to play the other person's position, that’s where you will come in contact with conflict. For me, being a mother just means that my body did what my body was supposed to do. There is extreme strength and validation in that. I've never felt more validated in my life than when I was pregnant. There was nothing that anyone could take from me or give to me that would equate what was happening to my body, which really is just a God-given gift because it's nothing that I really could do of my own volition.

That to me is feminism—that understanding and accepting my role as a woman and taking that in my stride. There are roles to be played and the problem is that equality gets mistaken for similarity. We are equal, but we are not the same. Therein lies the issue and quite frankly, that's the issue with everything. With gender and race, I mean, it's everything! We don't have to be the same in order to be treated equally. There would be a level of respect, but also the understanding one's role and one's position and then knowing where you come from. All those things factor in. Am I a feminist? No I'm not. I love being a woman. I couldn't fathom being anything else. I think we have the better end of the stick.

I don’t think we have the better end of the stick, particularly if you look at what women have to deal with across the world. But I do agree there’s no way I would trade this in to be a dude. I can’t really comprehend that feeling of power during pregnancy though…
You know, and it's funny, when I was pregnant, not only was I going through a divorce so that just amplified everything, but I remember thinking to myself, “I get it now. I totally understand it. God is so awesome and everything is about balance.” I was recording Flesh Tone and I thought about women who I love, I thought about anyone from Madonna to freaking Cher to Lauryn Hill, to all these women who did some of their best work pregnant. At first I was mortified to start recording pregnant. I was like, "I'm not going to sound the same, I'm gonna feel crazy, what if I can't sing.” And then actually sitting there with this belly and this little creature inside, and I'm literally and figuratively filled with life, and it's bellowing out of you. And I sounded better and wrote better than I think I ever had. It came with such ease. And I thought to myself, “My God, women have been doing this for freaking millenniums and they will continue to.”

Yeah, it is our super power.
Right. We live in a world where women are always fighting for equality, and I think we always look for it in the wrong places. Balance is already there: there's already something I can do that you can never do. Ever. So you could win the Noble Peace Prize, you could get a Pulitzer, and create world peace, but you'll never ever create life in your body. Ever. So we are balanced. [Laughs] Men can rule the world. I don't care. That feeling that I had, it was awesome: I've got this perfect person who calls me Mama, and so I don't really care if you want to pay me less than this guy gets paid. Who cares? He'll never have life growing in his belly. Ever! He should get paid more. It's only fair. He should because balance has already been created. I don't need you to treat me like a man for me to be equal. I need you to acknowledge that as a woman, I was perfectly made.

FOOD is out via Ninja Tune on April 22.

Kim is Noisey’s Style Editor and she’s on Twitter - @theKTB

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