Album: Kelis

Tasty, Arista
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The Independent Culture

It must be tough, given the increasingly tawdry turn taken by contemporary R&B, for a hip-hop soul diva to comport herself with anything like the elegance of a Diana, an Aretha, or a Whitney. On the one hand, there's the general imperative for a modern woman to present herself as assertive and self-determined, which can easily slip over into sheer surliness (which is rarely elegant); on the other, the modern requirement to appear sexually adventurous is all too often resolved by dressing like a trollop, as witness Lil' Kim and Christina Aguilera (which is about as inelegant as it gets).

Sustaining a balance between the two attitudes is a tricky business which few have yet managed to master as well as Kelis does with Tasty, her long-awaited follow-up to 1999's Kaleidoscope. With its lollipops, ice-cream sundaes and skimpy gold-lamé swimsuits, the album artwork recalls the risqué heyday of The Ohio Players, and Kelis certainly takes the sexual initiative in several songs, forcibly "stealing" love in "Stick Up", demanding satisfaction in "Attention", and inviting her fiancé Nas to engage in outdoor pursuits in "In Public": "Try something fun with me/ Let's take our clothes off on the balcony/ Ooh daddy, don't you want to be my subject/ Let's make love in public." For his part, Nas appears rather more flustered than he ever did in his accounts of life as a dope-dealing streetwise hustler.

Mostly, though, Kelis keeps a watchful eye on her affections in songs such as "Protect My Heart" and "Trick Me", and has developed a decidedly jaundiced view of hip hop's lop-sided sexual politics, judging by "Keep It Down": "Yeah, B-Boys want all the fame/ Girls get hurt when you play that game," she claims. "You're real concerned with how I feel/ No, thank you, I'd rather chill". Her sarcasm is underlined by the terse breakbeat and rap-metal fuzz-chords which punch the song along, the most forceful arrangement of an album whose settings generally prefer spring to stomp.

As on Kaleidoscope, The Neptunes shoulder the lion's share of musical duties, though with the notable exception of the fuzzy synth riff, timbales, and occasional well-placed finger-cymbal that comprise the infectious groove to "Milkshake", their productions seem a little flimsy by the duo's usual standards. So much so, in fact, that Damon Blackmon's inventive backing for "Stick Up", with its odd, noodling organ and pizzicato strings, sounds more like The Neptunes than they do themselves. But with Raphael Saadiq, Dallas Austin and OutKast's Andre 3000 all contributing edgy, propulsive grooves as well (the sprightly canter of Austin's "Trick Me" is particularly irresistible), the overall standard remains high. Kelis' ability to keep the feisty and flirtatious sides of her character in equilibrium, meanwhile, gives her a firmer grasp of that elusive elegance than most of her peers.