Kelis: Food review – 'sizzling sass and sorrow'

The American R&B star has been bouncing between careers as musician and chef. Now she's back with a fine album… about food

Kitty Empire reviews Elbow live at London's O2

About six years ago, Kelis Rogers – one of the more eccentric and compelling R&B singers out there – retrained as a saucier at the just-so Cordon Bleu academy. Kelis's culinary fetish had been foreshadowed for years. One of her standout albums was called Tasty; one of its biggest hits was Milkshake. At the time, Kelis's motivation in changing career seemed to be a protracted label dispute.

But by 2010 she was singing again, replacing the freaky modernism of her early, Neptunes-produced hits such as Caught out There with a neon-lit club venture, Flesh Tone, produced in part by David Guetta. Then it was back to being a single mum, and more catering. R&B's loss seemed to be soul food's gain. Not only does Kelis now have her own range of specialist sauces, Feast, she has piloted her own TV cookery show, Saucy & Sweet, and served duck confit sliders to punters at SXSW.

Once again, she's bounced from kitchen to studio. On Food she actually sizzles – bitter, saucy and deeply umami by turns, in an unlikely pairing with another New York to LA transplant. David Sitek, erstwhile TV on the Radio technician, broke out as a producer in the mid-00s, working with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Scarlett Johansson and Foals, among others. He's had a few quiet years but he's on fire here, playing Mark Ronson to Kelis's Amy Winehouse, bringing swinging, vintage music to her forthright confessions.

More of a pop character actor than a leading lady, Kelis still sings huskily, as though she has a frog – a confit leg, perhaps – caught in her throat. Here, it suits her material better than of late, with its mixture of righteousness, sass and sorrow. Gone is the Neptunes-era digital starkness, gone are the Guetta builds. Sitek orchestrates lushly, layering a little cooked-on residue, to temper the shine of the brass and the sweetness of the strings. "I need to be blown uh-waaaaaay," taunt five Kelises on the track Floyd, a layering that finds both singer and listener swooning.

Food's tracklisting – Biscuits n' Gravy, Jerk Ribs, Friday Fish Fry – seems like overkill on the theme, but it's less noisome than you'd fear. Only one Latinate song overdoes the salsa: fittingly, that's Cobbler (in America, that's a pie). Mostly, Food is good-time party fare packed with feeling; many of these songs would blend right in on a Soul Jazz compilation of rhythm and blues rarities. The single, Rumble, is a nagging keys riff, a little muted brass, and Kelis gargling about house keys. Jerk Ribs, which first surfaced last year, sells the album tremendously, with a prowling gait, some fanfaring brass and advice from Kelis's dad, a jazz musician.

Just as often, though, Kelis is in righteous mode. "You can't escape the grips of desire," she seethes on Change, another cut full of dramatic brass, jazzy percussion and alarmist bells. You can draw your own conclusions, but Kelis's acrimonious divorce in 2009 from the rapper's rapper Nas stemmed from an infidelity on his part. He put a bit of her wedding dress on the cover of his last album.

Their four-year-old, Knight, is on the intro to Breakfast, and it's far less nauseating than you might imagine. Breakfast starts this candid, nourishing record with a bit of hard-earned wisdom. There's more where it came from. "So much of who we are," notes Kelis, "is from who first taught us how to love." And then one of her catchiest-ever choruses crashes in.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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