kelis career underrated n.e.r.d. the neptunes
Getty Images / Mike Lewis Photography/Redferns

Very few artists in the mainstream music industry can genuinely be described as ‘groundbreaking.’ Kelis Rogers – who this week celebrates her 39th birthday – is one of them. Over the course of twenty years and six albums, she’s proven her ability to oscillate between EDM, trip-hop and slinky, experimental pop with ease, spawning everyone’s favourite slutty jam “Milkshake” and an underrated back catalogue of bangers in the process. Better still, she’s resisted the trappings of the industry by carving out her own sonic lane, speaking openly about label drama and generally not giving a fuck about sales or status.

Unlike most musicians, Kelis embraced this unfiltered ethos from day one. In 1999, she burst onto the scene with a catchy, rage-filled single “Caught Out There,” written as a definitive “fuck you” to a trifling ex. Production came courtesy of The Neptunes, who were then best known for their work with the likes of SWV and Mase, whereas the slick, futuristic visuals were helmed by the inimitable Hype Williams – think Kelis, with her candy-hued afro, mercilessly taking her revenge on an unfaithful partner.

The single was genius, but the accompanying album – Kaleidoscope – truly set her apart as an artist to watch. Lyrically, she mused on everything from relationships to game shows and invented stories of a stoner boyfriend being sent to another planet. Elsewhere, album highlight “Ghetto Children” offers a message of joy and resilience to underprivileged youth (“no matter what teachers say to you / ghetto children are beautiful”), whereas “Mafia” celebrates ride or die love and sees Kelis concede the spotlight to rapper Markita – one of a carefully-selected handful of guest artists.

Kaleidoscope also boosted the career of N.E.R.D, who featured on tracks “Roller Rink” and “Ghetto Children” for the first time ever. From that point onwards their careers were inextricably intertwined, and they went on to develop a close creative relationship.

But not all of their output was so well-received by record labels. When Kelis came with an equally eclectic sophomore offering – Wanderland, described as her “lost masterpiece” due to its lack of a US release – she was shot down by record execs who, in the wake of the label experiencing trouble, asked her to re-record it for an American audience. Kelis refused. “That whole period was just awful,” she later recalled in an interview with The Independent. “It felt like someone reading your diary and saying, ‘change it.’ Well, you know what? I preferred not to do that, even if it ruined me. You don’t have to like what I do, but you have to respect where it is I’m coming from.”

It’s no secret that American radio is relentlessly driven by genre, and that your chances of a hit are massively reduced if you don’t fit into a box. The fact that Wanderland’s soundscapes veer from soul and bossa nova to funk and rock probably didn’t help her case, but European fans in particular stood behind the star. Critics, on the other hand, were enamoured – and this industry adoration of her experimental approach to music has never waned.

This ‘no-fucks-given’ attitude was still written across 2003’s Tasty, which saw Kelis lure all the boys to the yard with her dairy-based treats. The title would later become ironic – she trained at Le Cordon Bleu in 2008 and launched a successful career as a chef, even releasing her own cookbook – but the album was undeniably iconic; dive deeper than the hit singles and you’ll find a left-field yet cohesive album whose best track (sorry “Millionaire”!) is all about the unbridled joys of fucking in public.

The album was hailed as her crossover moment despite the fact that her US label crumbled mid-promo cycle, leaving “Trick Me” sorely lacking the recognition it deserved. Would it have been easy to replicate the formula and score big again? Yes. Did she? No. Instead, Kelis seized the opportunity to work with producers other than The Neptunes for the first time on Kelis Was Here, a strong yet sometimes messy 18-track follow-up. There were undeniably highlights – she reclaimed the term ‘bossy’ on its lead single, teamed up with dancehall legend Spragga Benz on “Fire” and literally screamed about her sex life on “Blindfold Me” – but the album arguably needed to be trimmed. Alluding to this in a later interview, she says the decision to keep the tracklist so lengthy was partly an act of rebellion against her label.

Since then, Kelis has truly come into her own. On 2010’s Flesh Tone she dove headfirst into EDM before it was popular in the States, releasing a streamlined album packed with high-octane bangers. From the grinding, buzzsaw synths of “Intro” to the album’s twinkly piano segues and the pounding drumbeat of lead single “Acapella,” Flesh Tone was proof that Kelis could dive into any genre and master it. Oh, and don’t forget the iconic grey hair / septum ring combo! Now it seems she can creatively do no wrong – as proven once again by the retro soundscapes of 2014’s Food, the sonic equivalent of a delicious, comforting cookout.

kelis career underrated n.e.r.d. the neptunes
Getty Images / Don Arnold/WireImage

Her back catalogue is stellar, but the appeal of Kelis lies in more than just her music. Endearingly unfiltered, she uses her platform consistently to raise awareness of crucial issues: recently, she collaborated with Airbnb on a cooking class and donated its profits to a US immigrant justice charity supporting families ripped apart by ICE; months earlier she discussed the “mental and physical abuse” she says she suffered at the hands of ex-husband Nas, sending a vital message to survivors that speaking up is okay. On top of that, she’s spoken candidly of the stereotypes placed on black musicians (“especially in the States, if you’re black and you sing, then you’re R&B”), and shared her own experiences of racism in an airport queue. Whatever is on her mind, she says – especially in today’s increasingly buttoned-up music industry, that outspokenness is vital.

Kelis also sends a strong message to creative outsiders: believe in your vision. Despite going through three different US labels, some of whom explicitly asked her to make her work more palatable, she’s always valued creative integrity over commercial success. She’s often branded underrated, but to label her as such misses a key point – Kelis has no interest in being a pop star.

Instead, she pushes boundaries. From her early work with The Neptunes through to the game-changing visuals of her Flesh Tone era, she’s the kind of artist that brings out the best in her collaborators. Shae Haley, of N.E.R.D, described her as a “fucking oddity” in an interview with The FADER, praising her innovative thinking and relentless work ethic. It’s this combination of avant-garde creativity and steely determination that makes her, undeniably, one of the most forward-thinking artists in recent musical history.

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Words by Jake Hall