Kelis: The comeback kid

The R&B star tells Alexia Loundras about her tasty new album and the latest love of her life - knitting
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Kelis Rogers does not hold back. Never has. Never will. Five years ago, with her chart-smashing debut single, "Caught Out There", she bounded on to the world's pop stage like a rabid Gloria Gaynor consumed with anger, screaming: "I hate you so much right now!" with all the blind passion and requisite fury the words deserve, each raging outburst punctuated by a blood-curdling: "Aaaaaargh!"

No, Kelis is not one to bottle up her emotions. And now is no exception. Sitting cross-legged on the unmade bed in her swanky West End hotel room, the feisty singer is a squirming bundle of delight. "I'm so happy," she gushes with the kind of grin athletes wear on podiums. Glancing proudly down at the few square inches of knotted pink wool in her hands she explains: "I've always wanted to learn how to knit." A few days earlier, while playing a Radio One event in Belfast, Kelis had spotted Anna, a BBC staffer, wielding needles and wool backstage. When the singer took down Anna's number and promised to call for lessons next time she was in London, she wasn't joking. For the duration of our interview, Anna sits beside Kelis, explaining the basics of the pearl stitch. It's difficult to know which of us finds the situation more surreal.

Certainly not Kelis, who merrily takes the lesson-cum-interview in her stride. Dressed comfortably in a vest that reveals a series of dainty tattoos, and bright pink tracksuit bottoms rolled up to the knee, Kelis is beaming. She litters her sentences with full-bellied laughs and radiates joy. Even without make-up, she is strikingly beautiful - her big, almond eyes and smooth, caramel skin, framed by a smouldering flame of wild amber curls. Surrounded by balls of wool, and flanked by her new pal, the 24-year-old is clearly in seventh heaven.

But then, today's life-changing new hobby is by no means the only thing Kelis has to be happy about. For starters, there's the boiled sweet-sized diamond engagement ring she's wearing, a gift from NYC rapper Nas. At a party in 2002, her fiancé-to-be introduced himself with the words: "I've been looking for you for years, and I want to make you my wife." The feeling, it transpires was mutual. "I just knew this was the person I was supposed to be with," she says. (That feeling of destiny only increased when it turned out their fathers had played in the same jazz band many years earlier.)

Kelis's other main reason to be cheerful comes from the fact she's currently queen of the pop world after making her best album yet - an album that blew away the critics and blasted into the charts. Driven by the success of her deliciously saucy hit single "Milkshake", the Harlem singer's third album, Tasty, has been flying off shelves since its January release as fans across the world are seduced by the record's velvety palate of genre-hopping rhythms, glitchy electronica and dance-hall disco. Brimming with sassy beats and thick with heady attitude, "Milkshake" lit up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, earning the singer a Grammy nomination for Best Urban performance in the process (a categorisation Kelis just doesn't get: "When did the word 'urban' suddenly start meaning black?" she asks exasperated.) Not surprisingly, demands on the singer's time are high. Having played the Radio One show, Kelis is in town to add a little cool to the rebranding party for internet folks Wanadoo. And judging by the Louis Vuitton, Liberty and Top Shop bags strewn across the hotel room floor, the renowned shopaholic has wasted no time in spending some of her presumably sizeable fee.

But Kelis hasn't always been this popular. Although she was brought up in the relative comfort of a middle-class household (her father was a Pentecostal minister as well as a jazz musician, her mother a fashion designer), the singer's youth was not without its tribulations. Too black to fit in with the white kids at her prestigious private elementary school and too middle class for her Harlem neighbours, Kelis was snubbed by her peers. The fact Kelis's mother dressed her daughter in her own one-off creations probably did little to help Kelis's playground plight (though it probably does go some way to explaining the singer's flamboyant dress sense and yearning to knit). However, her childhood instilled in her a strong sense of confident individuality and the ability to stand her ground - invaluable survival traits both at her all-singing, all-dancing high school, New York's La Guardia School of Arts (immortalised in Fame) and in the music business which she would later graduate to. Whatever Kelis did, she'd be sure to do it her way.

Having set her sights on a singing career, Kelis was always intent on breaking the R&B mould. "Women, especially black female artists, were always expected to be a certain way," she says, her eyes on her stitching. "We were always expected to be crooning about some guy. And that was something I wanted to change." But it wasn't until a friend introduced the 17-year-old Kelis to the little known hip-hop production duo of Chad Hugo and Pharrell Williams (aka The Neptunes) that she found the means to her end. The trio clicked and together recorded Kelis's startling debut album, 1999's Kaleidoscope. With its mash of funky grooves, ravaged rock and The Neptunes' electrifying production, the record redefined the parameters of contemporary R&B, setting The Neptunes on the road to big-time pop glory and making an international cover star of the sultry-voiced diva.

But while The Neptunes went on to became pop's alchemists of choice, concocting countless hits for the likes of Justin Timberlake, Britney and Usher, the fairytale for Kelis was painfully - and surprisingly - short-lived. Lacking both the frazzled innovation and the surefire hits of its predecessor, Kelis's Neptunes-produced second album, 2001's cyber-funk-flavoured Wanderland, fell way short of expectation. In the UK, it was met with a muted response from both critics and record buyers, while, in America, the album wasn't even released. Kelis's US label, Virgin Records America, rejected the album and insisted she re-record it. When Kelis refused, the two parted company. "That whole period was just awful," remembers Kelis shuddering like a child recounting a trip to the dentist. "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."

Kelis admits she felt "scared to death" suddenly to find herself label-less and yesterday's pop news. But driven on by both her fiery self-belief and her deep Christian faith ("I believe He's got my back," she says) Kelis wasn't about to quit. Instead she found strength in her predicament. "I won't be governed by fear - that's a very big deal for me," she explains.

The challenge to prove herself all over again inspired her, she explains, "like a break-up". "Once you're over that 'Oh, Jesus' hump, then you feel free. You're released and rejuvenated. You're like, 'Ok, I'm strong enough. I did it,' you know? It's a very awakening moment." Kelis pulled together her jilted artistic heart and focused on making herself a new album. With The Neptunes too busy conquering the pop globe to take sole production reins again (they worked on only a handful of the new tracks) Kelis was, for the first time in her career, forced to take control of her album's sound. She called in favours from producer friends such as Outkast's Andre 3000 and Grammy-winning producer Raphael Saadiq, commissioning a set of exquisite, tailor-made tunes that would not only rival the breakthrough Kaleidoscope but exceed it.

Tasty is an album that smiles with quiet vindication - vindication that tasted all the more sweet when, having heard the record, The Neptunes signed Kelis to their Arista-backed Star Trak label. It's a bold work that oozes swaggering confidence and like Kelis, it embraces femininity in all its ripe glory. Because as well as being tough and assured, sensitive and vulnerable, Tasty is a very sexy record. "When I was 17, I wasn't really comfortable with myself - because honestly, who is?" she explains brightly. "But now I'm older, I've been through more. I'm engaged now - I've had boyfriends - and that's bound to change you."

Tantalising and overt, Tasty offers a heady mix of spoken desires and tongue-in-cheek naughtiness. The album's artwork may feature the singer sporting a series of saucy poses - exposing a lovebite on her neck, sucking a lollipop and sitting atop an ice-cream sundae like a pert cherry - but Kelis insists that far from being exploited by such blatant sexuality, she's empowered by it.

"There's definitely a smart way to be feminine and sexy and strong and assertive and all these things," she says momentarily putting aside her knitting. "I don't want to be strong the way a man is strong." Kelis's blazing spirit bubbles to the surface. "I'm a female," she says brandishing her needles. "Why should I be ashamed or go against the things that God gave me - He made me this way. I have breasts, I have a waist, I have an ass, I have hair. I don't have to burn my bra and walk around with a moustache to prove that I'm a strong woman."

Kelis erupts into a fit of laughter at the notion. With a two-hour hair-and-make-up session next on her schedule, it's clear Kelis isn't about to abandon her tweezers in return for sexual equality. But nor does she feel she has to. "Sexiness is just about being comfortable with who you are as a woman," she says. "And that's with all our flaws and all our imperfections. I know I'm not the prettiest black girl in the world - I'm a girl like anyone else, you know. But being able to say, 'I feel great', that to me really is empowering."

Despite the jet-setting demands of her pop lifestyle, it seems that right now Kelis is consumed with a Zen-like calm. And going from being dropped to being bigger than ever seems to have satisfied her need to prove herself. Now, contentment is her main aim. "I can't say that I would ever stop making music all together, but I know I will not always be doing it to this capacity. I just want to be happy - and kids would be good," she says losing herself in a domestic reverie. "I want the whole family thing." Her eyes rest again on the growing chunk of knotted pink wool in her hands and a broad grin blossoms on her lips. "But for now - knitting is all I'm going to do. I can't wait to learn how to change colours! I love it!"

'Tasty' is out now on Virgin. The album's single 'Trick Me' is released on 24 May