PERMANENT RECORDS: YOUNG, FRESH N' NEW
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
This endeavor is based on a concept started by Chris Tamarri at Crisis/Boring Change. It has since been expanded as a concept, as Neal Shaffer takes on a study of album covers over at Leftwich.
19. KELIS - WANDERLAND (2001)
Personnel: Kelis and the Neptunes, with guest vocals by Clipse, Roscoe, and John Ostby; guest performance by No Doubt
Producers: Pharrell Williams & Chad Hugo (The Neptunes) and Rob Walker / Label: Virgin
In a post-Tasty world, where just about every comedy show on television has parodied "Milkshake" in some fashion, it's easy to forget there was a time when Kelis seemed like she was beamed in from another planet. Even stranger, it was a time when the general populace didn't know who she was. Kelis went from being the anonymous girl in the O.D.B. video ("Got Your Money") to the chick screaming "I hate you so much right now!" in her own clip ("Caught Out There"), as well as supplying odd hooks for Busta Rhymes and others. American radio didn't know what to do with her, and her first album, Kaleidoscope, was stillborn. Now she's on her fourth. Kelis Was Here is the highly anticipated follow-up to Tasty, and it was just released this week. It's actually quite good, but it also has a very comfortable sound. Kelis just isn't that weird anymore, and it behooves us to look back at a time when she was.
Despite the failure of Kaleidoscope, hopes were high for her second album, Wanderland. The UK press had embraced Kelis as a fresh new voice, and since her debut, the men she made her music with had also risen in stature. The Neptunes is a production duo comprised of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, and they grew popular constructing beats for hits by Jay-Z, Mystikal, and Lil Kim. They are known for an odd, syncopated sound that comes off like a mutant lovechild of '70s soul movies and Atari video games, with the midwife duties handled by a Casio keyboard. Their idiosyncratic hiphop tracks crossed over into the pop charts, and pretty soon the pop charts were asking them to stay. The Neptunes ended up working with N'Sync and Britney, and their was a growing buzz around their own indie rock band, N*E*R*D. Pharrell would eventually decide he was a soul singer despite his somewhat limited croon, and he'd abandon his weirdness and innovation for a safety-net formula for mainstream radio that ended up giving out beneath him--but that was a couple of years away. Wanderland is the Neptunes at their nadir.
After a brief intro, "Young, Fresh n' New" leads off Wanderland (it was also its main single). It comes as both announcement and warning. It delivers on its own description: with grinding guitars and Kelis' vocals being both honeyed and piercing in equal measure, the song charges in on its own big wheels (the video would even have Kelis driving a monster truck). It also instructs those who need it to "run away from...home," or alternately to "run away from...young, fresh n' new." If you aren't ready for this, in other words, get out of the way; if you are ready, then hit the road and start living.
Kelis has an interesting way of approaching a song as a kind of playground singalong, as if she weren't a wild-haired hiphop queen but a little girl skipping along with a basket for grandma. "Milkshake" would later take this to its most lascivious extreme, but first Wanderland would play around with the concept on songs like "Flashback." Kelis can make her deep growl sound innocent and seductive, essentially taking a soul song about fond memories of dirty couplings and making the chorus sensuous and the verses invoke some kind of naughty Lolita. The song starts with a walk to the corner store on a summer's day, but ends with "sex soaring like a plane." The technique is employed elsewhere, usually for the same sort of aural double entendre. "Daddy" is a lecherous come-on, but Kelis raps like it's a nursery rhyme, a sort of "Mockingbird" for a new generation. "Yesterday you bought me some shoes/ Dolce & Gabana and a bag made of Iguana/ And a blazer and a chocolate tie." The Neptunes stack the deck in "Daddy," letting Kelis both rap and sing, with Pharrell stepping in and joining Malice from Clipse to be the singing and rapping parts for the boy Daddy doesn't approve of. The interesting thing is that for as clever-clever as the production is, when it's a Kelis joint, the Neptunes always hang back a bit. There is a strong beat and samples tweaked for a melody, but they are always in service to Kelis.
This is because Kelis is in service to no one.
What makes Kelis a standout in the hiphop world is she can hold firm amongst the hardest of MCs. Most divas just provide the occasional vocal hook for a rapper in turn for his guesting on one of their records, but their voices generally sound frail next to the forceful push of the rapper. It's only the best among them (Mary J. Blige, Beyonce) that doesn't let the rapper push her around. Kelis is too strong a personality to let anyone roll over her. If she guests on your record (Busta's "What It Is" or Foxy Brown's "Candy" being two good examples), chances are her bits are going to be the most memorable. So on her own cuts, the rappers almost seem like nuisances, the drum solo no one really needed. The duo Clipse splits up and each MC takes a turn on different Wanderland tracks, and while "Popular Thug" (featuring Pusha T) and "Daddy" are both great spots on the album, the men almost don't need to be there. You're just listening to the woman in charge.
The same happens when Kelis steps on a stage. I saw N*E*R*D tour their first record, and they brought a lot of the Neptunes crew with them for guest spots. Kelis was among them, and when she stepped into the club's spotlight, hair everywhere, skin glistening, her voice cut right through the smoke and dry ice. The band was gone, all eyes were on her.
So, why did it take so long for people to get hip to Kelis? It certainly isn't a fault of Wanderland. It's a brilliant disc, that's why I picked it to write about. Perhaps it's just the fault of the label, who bungled Wanderland and never released it stateside. Go to iTunes, it's the only Kelis album not available for download. There's a lot that could have been done with this record. "Young, Fresh N' New" could have been pushed to alternative radio, "Popular Thug" would have been at home on most hiphop stations, and "Shooting Star" could have easily nestled into one of BET's late-night soul shows. A velvety slither through romantic bedroom talk with Pharrell providing a counter melody, it's up there with similar new soul by Maxwell and D'Angelo.
Then there's "Perfect Day," co-written by the Neptunes and No Doubt, a collaborative match-up that would hit paydirt that same year when No Doubt released "Hella Good." The band didn't hand Kelis some lame toss-off that they didn't want themselves. "Perfect Day" has a fat Tom Dumont guitar riff, and the sort of high-energy chorus that Gwen Stefani has built her career on. In fact, it's a pretty standard Stefani love song about perfect bliss in couplehood. Wasn't there a way to push this to No Doubt's fans? Certainly the quirks that accompany "Perfect Day" on its half of the album would appeal to the same crowd. Kelis duels with a keyboard on "Easy Come, Easy Go," the rising scales sounding like they were blown through a pipe. The song's danceable rhythms would have found a welcome audience if Kelis had opened for No Doubt. The righteous-lady-wronged histrionics of "Get Even" could have also provided a little bite amongst the girl power anthems cherished in Stefani's Tragic Kingdom. (I saw No Doubt on that tour, and it was a triple-bill with Garbage and the Distillers. I'd have easily traded the Distillers for Kelis.)
It doesn't really make sense to me. On paper, there are a lot of ways that Virgin could have sold Wanderland, and on the stereo, it sells itself. Kelis could have been M.I.A. before there was an M.I.A. So, why did they decide America wasn't willing to hear it?
Obviously, I don't really know, but if I had to hazard a guess, the logic probably was that Gwen Stefani's Tragic Kingdom was more open, that it allowed for a more communal experience, whereas Kelis' Wanderland was a place of her own design, was too unique. Look at the cover of the album. Kelis is peering down whatever rabbit hole will take us to the other side, and all she sees staring back is herself. Perhaps the record company executives were scared that it was a closed circle and no one could get in. It's not the first time corporate America decided its customers were stupid.
If that was the logic, then it's backwards, because the personal nature of Wanderland is exactly what makes it so good. As I've firmly established, there can be no other Kelis, and an unshakable individuality is what has always made great artists great. The reason most pop music is disposable is that it's designed to expire. When Jessica Simpson gets too old, too annoying, or both, she has a little sister waiting in the wings to step onstage and show us her acid reflux. There is no one standing behind Kelis. That would be like trying to replace Björk (with whom Kelis has worked), or Prince, or Bob Dylan, or any of the other one-of-a-kind performers over the years. It's why Kelis eventually rose to the top. You can't keep someone like that down.
By that token, Wanderland won't stay hidden forever either. It's out there, and it's waiting to be rediscovered. You just have to work your way to it, figure out what planet Kelis was beamed in from, find the rabbit hole and adjust your size to fit through the door it's hiding behind.
Notable B-Side: I bet a lot of you didn't know there was a British dance phenomenon called "garage" (and sometimes "grime") a couple of years ago. It had nothing to do with crunchy rock bands. It was a sort of combination of techno, two-step (yet another bizarrely specific dance genre), and hiphop. Its origins were probably in jungle, too, a subgenre known for what I like to call the "breaking plates" rhythm, where the beats would pile up on one another like the sound of a huge stack of plates being dropped on the floor. Garage had a similar beat style, but staying in the lower register with very artificial sounding drums. The backing tracks were sparse, usually just one sound like the Neptunes might use in force repeated ad infinitum. At the head of this movement was the So Solid Crew, Britain's answer to the Wu-Tang Clan. Kelis got A.C. Burrell and Megaman from So Solid to work over "Young, Fresh n' New," and the result is almost like a bizarre demo that Chad and Pharrell might have done for the song. Though it's billed as the "So Solid Remix-Full Vocal," the mixers end up playing with certain phrases from the song itself, working them over a steadily hammering beat and around a looped laser tag sound and some carefully plucked string instruments. The result is maddening in its assault on your frontal lobe, but invigorating in how it moves your feet. It's also a notable remix for taking the song in a different direction while still maintaining its recognizability.
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Current Soundtrack: sitcoms, because the best fan is out by the TV
Current Mood: relaxed
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich