You never know what's coming next from Kelis. Her four previous albums boasted just as many distinct sounds, and appeared on as many different labels. Over her decade-long career, Kelis has lurched from the vengeful shrew of her breakout single, "Caught Out There," to the sex queen of the smash hit "Milkshake" to the attitudinizing narrator of the camp anthem "Bossy."
While such songs could have turned this Harlem-born singer into the queen of the novelty single, Kelis Jones has established a persona of such convincing defiance, you'd never write her off like that. Even in her early days, when she was produced by the very strong hand of the Neptunes, Kelis never seemed like their mere puppet. (The realization that some people felt otherwise may explain why she proposed naming her last CD, "The Puppeteer.")
Given such a striking track record, you'd think Kelis would have no trouble fulfilling the mission of her latest work - to create a stoked club record. Though dance music often defers to the producer rather than the singer, that didn't stop such tough-minded stars as Donna Summer or Madonna from coming off as the co-auteurs of their party CDs.
So it comes as particularly disappointing that Kelis hasn't been able to pull off something similar on "Flesh Tone." This first album from her in four long years finds the singer signed to will.i.am's pop-dance imprint through Interscope. (She famously clashed with her last label, Jive.) Will, in turn, hooked the singer up with his own dance maven, David Guetta, along with other beat-friendly producers, from Jean-Baptiste to Boys Noize to DJ Ammo.
In every track, their synths bloop, beep and swoosh, while the beats unendingly boom. Amid the sprawl and bash, Kelis' husky voice seems like just another percussive effect, lost in the wash. She ends up seeming more scenery than star.
That's a shame, considering Kelis has much of note to sing about in the time since her last CD. She went through a garish public divorce from esteemed rapper Nas and gave birth to his son, Knight. Kelis cleverly serenades the kid in the single "Acapella" ("before you/my whole life was a cappella"). Two other tracks mention the kid, which could be a first. Who writes dance songs about a literal baby, rather than a romantic one?
Unfortunately, the individuality of it all doesn't read, given the manipulations of Kelis' voice and the WKTU-like clichés of the music. The melodies aren't distinct enough and the production just offers rote '80s/'90s dance fodder. (Where are the Neptunes when Kelis really needs them?) Though the album clocks in at a terse 37 minutes and allows no time between tracks, somehow it seems to drag on forever