In a genre that often traffics in sonic and visual conformity, blond-and-pink-haired singer Kelis is like the Dennis Rodman of R&B -- brash, independent and alien, but too talented to ignore. Thankfully, she exhibits none of the self-destructive traits of Rodman, but she looks and sounds different from any of the other women of R&B. The 20-year-old made her mark parrying with that other urban alien, Ol' Dirty Bastard, on his recent "Got Your Money" single.
"He's his own man, you know," the one-name-only singer says of ODB in Los Angeles, while being shuttled from radio station to radio station in a limo. "He does his own thing and he's a little eccentric, but cool. People have said a lot worse things about me."
The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) co-wrote ODB's "Money" and also produced/co-wrote Kelis' debut album, Kaleidoscope, providing a nice bit of synergy and a boost for the singer. Though her record is off the wall in different ways than ODB's raspy non sequiturs, it has its own strangely inspired moments. The duo's production leans toward drum 'n' spaciness; staccato beats bounce quickly by, getting stiff keyboard riffs to bend into the groove. Vocally, Kelis can equally seethe with rage or burn with desire.
Like the artist herself, Kaleidoscope is a record of mood swings. From the start, it's obvious that she's about something different. The record opens, as so many hip-hop and R&B albums seem to these days, with an "Intro" song, supposedly setting up the record. This one claims that Kelis was found on a voyage by unnamed space travelers in the "fourth sector" who brought her to Earth. Her life is chronicled from diapers to grade school and up. Then, during a bit on her high school graduation, the grown-up Kelis breaks in with a condescending, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, and now I'm all grown up." She neither has the time nor the patience even to do the perfunctory album opener the way everybody else does.
Kelis' voice is elastic, bouncing from sweet to street without losing the personality behind it. There are moments of smooth greatness, like the jazzy guitars of "In the Morning," when the Jeep-rockin' beats mesh with her sticky voice to produce smart and lustful back-seat make-out music. There's also the blissed-out blunt-smoking "Mars" and the blood oath love song "Mafia." Counterpointing the bump 'n' grind are moments of anger and playfulness. The highlight is Kelis' first single, "Caught Out There," a focused blast of estrogen rage -- dedicated to all the women who have been lied to by their men. It's guaranteed to be the breakup song for 2000, capturing the same "woman scorned" vibe as Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know." Shooting stars of keyboards fly by and the beat grows more insistent as she details what her man has put her through. Then she screams the thundering chorus: "I hate you so much right now," followed by a wordless howl. It certainly isn't subtle, but the power of the lyric is its emphasis on "right now." This isn't a post-breakup song; it's a breakup in progress reported from the scene, which makes it all the more riveting.
"That's important, that's really important," she says of the "right now" lyric. "No one ever notices that, but that's so fucking key -- it's not forever. I say it all the time. It's that momentary feeling of outrage. People say that hate's a really strong word, and it is. 'Right now' makes it so real, for me at least. You can be in love with someone, and at that moment you can hate them. Sometimes we don't say it because it's like, 'Oh, I really love this person.' Fuck that: 'You've pissed me off really bad and I hate you right now.' I can't say it any better. It works out perfect."
And then it's topped off with a scream.
"Oh, hell, yeah. It wasn't enough, I had to let the extra bit out," she says, laughing.
"Caught Out There" isn't the first song to curse a guy out for being a dog, but coupled with TLC's "No Scrubs" and Destiny's Child's "Bills, Bills, Bills," it's part of a recent hip-hop uprising of calling men on the carpet. "No Scrubs" brought an answer song, "No Pigeons," from hip-hop duo Sporty Thievz which dissed gold-digging women. And "Caught Out There" has caught the attention of the "Pigeons" writers as well. They have reportedly been sending out feelers to Kelis' people saying that they would like to "rebut" the song.
Kelis has her own answer already. "Everyone says, 'You've got this man-hating song, you're contributing to the whole "Scrubs" and "Pigeons" situation' -- which I'm not. If you're a man and you feel offended by my song, then to me, it says that in some way you feel guilty," she says. "I'm not offended by the 'Pigeons' song because I don't feel like a 'pigeon,' so I don't feel like it's talking about me."
But if she was offended by something, there would be no hesitation in telling you. Kelis wasn't kidding when she said she had been called worse names than ODB. Her nickname (behind her back, anyway) is "Thunder Bitch" -- a reference to her outspokenness and propensity for getting her own way. She's obviously strong-willed and tough. Growing up in Harlem, she studied drama, violin and saxophone, sang with the choir, and, oh, yeah, led a student walkout against Mayor Giuliani's school budget cuts.
"I got kicked out of class a lot. I got suspended a couple of times. I was the worst," she says, laughing, tugging at her mountain of curls. "Just because I was like, 'Fuck this.' Giuliani was taking away all our funding and it was really an excuse for me to be like, 'Let's rebel.' Imagine, I've got thousands of kids walking behind me like, 'Fuck school. Fuck Giuliani.' Not any excuse [to rebel], but if there is an excuse, I'm there."
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What's funny about all of this is that when she speaks about these protests and delivers mini-rants, she punctuates most of it with a laugh. Not a nervous laugh, but a carefree and confident chuckle. She can also switch quickly to an all-business mode; talking with people from her record company about tee shirt ideas, she makes sure that the next round will be more to her liking. These design ideas may be second nature to Kelis because her mother was a fashion designer -- which may explain how she gets away with wearing pink faux-snakeskin patterned pants with green boots -- and she credits her mom for giving her the confidence to be so outlandish.
"Whether my mom wants to believe it or agree with it or not, she raised me to be this way," she says. "She used to always tell me, 'Speak your mind. Don't ever bite your tongue -- it's not worth it, you'll regret it later.'" Of course, "My mom would tell me, 'Say what you feel,' but I'd say it and she'd be like, 'Watch your mouth.' That's probably where I get Thunder Bitch from -- I just say what I'm thinking."
The obvious problem about speaking your mind when you are a young female is that it's easy to get labeled things like "Thunder Bitch" -- while a successful young guy who sets his own rules and agenda is usually called a visionary.
"You know what? I'll take it. Call me a bitch, call me whatever, it doesn't matter. What it all boils down to is when the day is over I'm still walking away with what it is that I came in there to get. People who really know me know what I'm all about and why I am the way I am. The reason that I'm so fucking assertive and quote/unquote demanding or bossy is 'cause you'll get walked over if you're not."