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Kelis

Tasty (StarTrak/Arista)

Tasty's cover -- a close-up head shot of Kelis and her enticing, entrancing, lusciously come-hither stare -- calls to mind two old-school R&B performers known for that exact same gaze: Donna Summer and Millie Jackson. The comparisons don't stop with the cover art -- and apparently, that's the point. Kelis has always been modeled as a kind of desirable dancing queen by the two men who (practically) made her, superproducers Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams.

But that image hasn't always been as blatant as it is on Tasty, which throws the switch on Kelis's smoky, kinky sexuality all the way up to full blast. Summer's cock-teasing carnality and Jackson's tongue-in-cheek ribaldry are both resurrected -- you half expect the jewel box to moan in ecstasy every time you open it. (That's the kind of piracy-fighting solution the RIAA should be looking into…) Even so, the most fascinating thing about Tasty is how Kelis tries to escape the ever-molding, ever-shaping hands of Hugo and Williams.

Last year Kelis bailed out of the Sprite Liquid Mix Tour with Williams, his rock outfit N.E.R.D. and other Neptunes-produced artists. Perhaps I'm reading too much into all this, but anyone who has followed Kelis and her music knows her need to break free was inevitable. Her debut, Kaleidoscope, especially her gurgling-with-angst first single, "Caught Out There," declared that she was a disco doll with a punk soul. Ever since, her punkiness rarely came out to play -- her still-unreleased-in-the-States Wanderland, well done as it was, had Williams and Hugo suppressing her wild-child side.

And now, here comes Tasty, an album that finds her more in the raw than a young, supple French chick butt-bald-nekkid in a François Ozon movie. It's also an album that poses the question, Do other producers get her better than the Neptunes?

She certainly tries out a bunch of 'em. The Neptunes produced only four of Tasty's 14 tracks, including the insta-hit "Milkshake," which, with its South Asian rhythms, should be subtitled "The Neptunes Go Bollywood," but mostly, Tasty finds a slew of producers trying to accentuate her freakiness. OutKast's eccentric explorer Andre 3000 drifts in on a pink cloud, tinkers with his Casio and comes up with a tune of fast-paced R&B minimalism on "Millionaire," while Rockwilder's offering, "In Public," is easily the most explicit track on the album. Along with her boy-toy Nas, Kelis is in full lyrical freaky-sneaky mode here -- she sounds like Berlin's Terri Nunn ripping into "Sex (I'm A…)": "Come take a walk with me / We can do it over there by all the trees / Drive this car real fast / I'll lay my head down and I'll make your body blast -- ow." (Hey, I never said any of this shit was subtle!)

Other producers eschew such soft-core shenanigans in favor of creating more inventive sounds, and it's perhaps gospeldelic guru Raphael Saadiq who makes the sweetest music here. Saadiq puts his back into three tracks, with the standout being "Glow," a high-spirited trip to the sun that wonderfully spotlights the singer's flighty flintiness. (Or is it flinty flightiness?) And after hearing Andre's and Saadiq's cuts, the thought of Kelis roping in her inner Adina Howard for the benefit of good music doesn't sound all that bad.

 
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