Kelis: Flesh Tone (Album Review)

Known for providing some of the most innovative, genre-bending dance-turned-R&B-turned-rock ‘n’ roll tracks of the 21st century, Kelis has always been known to be a formative, if not consistently underestimated figure in the music industry.

With “Acapella,” the singer’s colossal first single from Flesh Tone, it was clear that the singer was by all intents and purposes ‘back’ after a four year hiatus from the industry. The song, which would eventually hit #1 on the Billboard Dance/Club Play charts, doubled as a successful re-introduction into the scene and provided a perfect showcase of the album’s major themes: carnal beats, soaring vocals, and an emphasis on forward-thinking electronica.

But while all signs pointed to promising results, it’s hard to say if anyone could have expected this album; one that could easily be declared the best albums of the year thus far. Yet that’s exactly what we’ve been given.

Flesh Tone is only a nine-track album, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. Each track seamlessly feeds into the next thanks to a series of transitions, resulting in a non-stop primal party mix that holds true to Kelis’ initial hopes for the album. “It’s an album you can get sweaty to,” Kelis explained to Rap-Up early into the promotional campaign for Flesh Tone. She wasn’t kidding.

With opening tracks “22nd Century” and “4th of July (Fireworks),” Kelis immediately builds a case for her complex new sound. Both songs are structured more like ten different tracks being played at once, transitioning into new bridges and alternating melodies and dance breaks.

Soon after comes the lonesome sounding “Home,” which sounds like one thing and expresses quite another: “The lights are shining, I’m already home,” Kelis croons above scorching synthesizers and a blaring beat. The pulsations are bold and vibrant, even if her voice remains mournful.

There’s also “Emancipate,” which may well be the “Vogue” or “Express Yourself” of 2010. “Let me tell you what love is,” Kelis announces like a proper disco diva at the start of the song. “It’s about meeting each other half way…I’m in route.” What follows can be described only as a modern re-imagining of Erotica-era Madonna, as the mantra “Emancipate yourself” repeats again and again on top of strut-and-pose synthesizers. It’s an instant, undeniable gay anthem for the next generation.

The David Guetta-produced “Scream” is another major moment for the singer, as Kelis finds herself getting even more comfy in her new role as commander of the dance floor. “You’ll never know if you don’t let it out/ You have enough, they’ll call your bluff” Kelis announces as the song dives into the chorus. Here, the synthesizers flare like smoke pouring from the speakers while the frantic electronic noises begin to dissipate, making each repeat of the chorus sound not unlike a rocket launching from Earth.

The true triumph, however, would be the final moments of the record with the Benny Benassi-produced “Brave.” The song is the most personal of the bunch (aside from the final ode to her newborn son, Knight, entitled “Song for The Baby”), which finds Kelis taking on her divorce, pregnancy, and various other inner demons in a rave-happy, carnal explosion of noisy synthesizers and grinding electronica. “It was crazy. Had a baby, he’s amazing,” she croons across the song’s first verse, “He saved me. And this time, it’s just us.”

An immediate favorite from the get-go, “Brave” is truly what brings Flesh Tone from greatness to the upper echelons of incredible.

The brilliance with Flesh Tone is that Kelis has taken very Top 40 production value (Jean Baptiste, for instance, often works with the Black Eyed Peas) and transformed it into complex, next level electronica with multiple layers and dimension. These aren’t simply three minute dance tracks with catchy, radio-ready choruses, they’re part of a complete album experience providing the soundtrack to a host of stories and emotions.

In short, the best way I can describe this album is to declare it a kind of Confessions on a Dance Floor of the new decade. And that, my friends, speaks volumes.

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