Label: Ninja Tune/IRIS
Release Date: 4/18/14
To cook a meal and share it with someone is both a good will gesture and an act of faith. It requires intimacy, both to navigate various allergies, politics, and preferences and to spoon out something you made. Cooking’s transformative power guides singer-songwriter Kelis Rogers, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in the mid-2000s and launched her sauce collection, Feast, in 2013. On Food, her excellent sixth album and follow-up to 2010’s underrated Flesh Tone, Kelis dishes homemade comfort with songs like “Breakfast,” “Jerk Ribs,” “Biscuits n’ Gravy,” “Cobbler,” and “Friday Fish Fry.” The album begins with her young son, Knight, asking “Are you hungry? My mom made food.” Kelis considers food as both a currency of affection and a symbol for the emotional nourishment she wants and expects as a musician, mother, daughter, and woman.
Food is an album about wanting to feed and be fed. The most overt references to desire center on carnal satisfaction, whether it be an insistent plea for ice-cold water on “Friday Fish Fry,” a quiet wish for someone to fill up personal space on “Floyd,” or a breathless sigh from a clandestine reunion on “Rumble.” However, Kelis doesn’t just treat a good meal as a facile metaphor for sex.
On “Breakfast,” Kelis observes that “so much of who we are is from who first taught us how to love.” Families often congregate around the dinner table, even if such communion can be tense and complicated. Throughout Food, Kelis lovingly references her son and father, the late jazz musician Kenneth Rogers. On “Hooch,” Kelis reflects on her son’s innocence, opening with the line “These are the days in your life/When you cross up, time is free/Like your daddy say the world is yours/So let it come naturally.” Her hesitant phrasing is rich with meaning, both to the son she wants to protect and to his father, her ex-husband Nas, whose 1994 single she references.
She is similarly guarded about romance. On the chorus to the opening track, she proclaims that her new love “is the real thing” while later equivocating that “maybe we’ll make it to breakfast.” Ultimately, her omnivorous curiosity provides its own sustenance. Sometimes her artistic endeavors result in physical distance, which poignantly expressed on an unadorned cover of Labi Siffre’s “Bless the Telephone.” But on the dazzling closer, “Dreamer,” she honors her imagination, which gives her the strength to create wonderful meals, songs, and worlds and share them with others.
Cooking requires balance. On Food, Kelis finds an excellent sous chef in producer David Sitek. Neither are genre purists—Kelis never identified as an R&B singer, Sitek’s band TV on the Radio created anthemic rock out of borrowed and reclaimed elements. On Food, they treat the studio like a spice rack. With arranger Todd Simon, they make irresistible pop from such ingredients as gospel vocals, funk guitar, Afrobeat percussion, soul brass, and new wave synth flourishes. Sometimes the results are slightly murky and overseasoned. But most of this textured, sensuous record left me with a full stomach, a contented heart, and a clean plate. Bring a fork.
Recommended Tracks: 9, 13, 1, 3, 2, 11, 7.