20. Fuck Them Bitches (2006)
Hidden away at the end of Kelis Was Here – after the laid-back, samba-influenced closer Have a Nice Day – is a burst of Kelis at her most winningly splenetic, turning her attention to that perennial bugbear, the Haters: “Keep my name out your mouth,” she offers, “I’ll keep my foot out your butt.”
19. Feed Them (2022)
Since the release of her last album, 2014’s Food, Kelis has largely confined her releases to guest spots – with Disclosure and TCTS among others – but this year’s single Feed Them, a taster for her forthcoming album Dirt, was a breezy, funky return, apparently designed to highlight the need for more fruit and veg in one’s diet.
18. Sugar Honey Iced Tea (2003)
Kelis at her fluffiest – the backing track comes laden with soft soul strings and laid-back sax, the lovestruck lyrics are filled with blue skies and tweeting birds, the title line is sung in a speeded-up child’s voice – and yet there’s still a dirty joke on hand: acronymise the title and it doesn’t seem quite as sweet.
17. Forever Be (2014)
Four years after reinventing herself as a house diva, another left turn: Food was produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek, its sound an idiosyncratic, eclectic, leftfield take on soul. With its husky vocal soaring over a tapestry of strings and horns and minimal piano, Forever Be is utterly joyous.
16. 4th of July (Fireworks) (2010)
Her guest appearances are outside this list’s remit, but throughout her career, Kelis has collaborated with dance producers – Timo Maas, Moby, Richard X, Crookers – which helped to explain why her own left turn into house music on 2010’s Flesh Tone worked: poppily melodic but tough, 4th of July (Fireworks)’s commercial failure was surprising.
15. Distance (2012)
The great what-if of Kelis’s career: played on the radio, available online as an illicit rip, never officially released, the Skream-produced Distance was supposed to be the first single from an unfinished “trip-hoppy … darker” album. It’s great: a whisper of two-step garage in the beats, the lyrics about a collapsing relationship – at odds with the lush electronic backing.
14. Popular Thug (2001)
Kelis’s second album, Wanderland, was a commercial disaster: her US label refused to release it and it flopped everywhere else. Yet it’s easily as good as her debut, as evidenced by the lurching beats and smart, repetitive hook of Popular Thug. She subsequently re-recorded it with then-partner Nas, but the original, featuring the Clipse’s Pusha-T, is the one.
13. Cobbler (2014)
Having often complained about her record labels, Kelis sounded genuinely comfortable on Food. From its opening studio chatter to its great self-deprecating gag about the artist’s limited vocal range – it’s hard to imagine any of her peers countenancing such a thing – Cobbler is a writhingly funky source of bountiful good vibes.
12. Get Along With You (1999)
Kelis isn’t particularly known for ballads, but Kaleidoscope’s heartbroken Get Along With You – a bittersweet slow-motion take on the very 1999 trend for R&B tracks driven by staccato riffs – showcases a suitably off-centre approach to the form: “Now I’m forced to roam this planet sadly,” she laments, “lonely like a loose baguette.”
11. Millionaire (2003)
Produced by imperial-phase André 3000 and as good as anything on OutKast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below, Millionaire is a fantastic track: a clipped new wavey drum machine under scattered, distorted synths and fabulous melody. In truth, you get rather more André than Kelis for your money, but who cares when the results are this good?
10. Good Stuff (1999)
With its killer bassline, smart lyrics – “I can love you in one million ways, if you don’t like it, send it back in 30 days” – and superb guest appearance from Pusha-T (then still calling himself Terrar), Good Stuff was clever, minimal and different: in its own way, as much of a calling card as Caught Out There.
9. Flashback (2001)
Another track that escaped the commercial car crash of Wanderland to live another day, the futuristic funk of Flashback turned up in identical form on the album’s successor Tasty. Beyond the gorgeous melody, there’s almost nothing to it – a tough beat, a bit of synth – but that’s all it needs: the Neptunes at their spartan best.
8. Like You (2006)
Outside her work with the Neptunes, Like You might have the most striking beat in Kelis’s catalogue: a cut-up, twisted sample of an opera singer that bursts into a nagging hook on the chorus. Along with her soft vocal – she breaks into a laugh after a particularly forthright line – it makes Like You a brilliantly original take on a bedroom slow jam.
7. Acapella (2010)
Flesh Tone’s highlight found David Guetta unexpectedly reining in his poppier tendencies: a million miles away from his work on the Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling, it’s a distorted, minimal electro-house banger: the ghost of Donna Summer lurks somewhere around Kelis’s performance, the chorus is fabulous, the overall effect euphoric but never obvious.
6. Jerk Ribs (2014)
The titles of Food’s tracks played on Kelis’s second career as a Cordon Bleu chef, but the lyrics to Jerk Ribs are a beautiful meditation on her jazz musician father and the way music and memory entwine: that they’re set to urgent, horn-laden, Afrobeat-influenced funk rather than something more reflective only makes them more potent.
5. Young, Fresh n’ New (2001)
A flop in the US, which seems inexplicable. This is by far the best of the Neptunes’ attempts to forge a 21st-century funk-rock hybrid: the sound of Kelis bursting forth from a mass of car alarms and grinding electronics is hugely exciting; no comparable NERD production ever lived up to it.
4. Bossy (2006)
As if to prove she could make weird hit singles without the Neptunes’ help, Kelis collaborated with the producer Bangladesh – best known for Lil’ Wayne’s A Milli – on Bossy: spindly keyboards, a plethora of moans and an 808 drum machine, over which she swaggers irresistibly: “I ride the beat like a bicycle – I’m icy cold”.
3. Trick Me (2003)
Hats off to producer Dallas Austin, who wrote Trick Me – irrepressible hook, killer lyrics – and transformed the cheesy pre-set foxtrot rhythm on a 60s Mellotron keyboard into slinky reggae. Nevertheless, it’s Kelis’s show. She sounds both seductive and steely, suggesting the song’s subject will rue his decision to mess her around.
2. Caught Out There (1999)
Kelis’s cameo on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Got Your Money had already pricked people’s ears up, but Caught Out There was one of the great attention-grabbing debuts of the 90s. The screamed refrain is what everyone remembers, but its power lies in the shift from the cold dismissive tone of the verses to the chorus’s bug-eyed fury.
1. Milkshake (2003)
Relations between Kelis and the Neptunes are at an all-time low, but before it all went bitterly wrong, their collaboration yielded her greatest song – and theirs. Milkshake is an astonishing record, made of fizzing, blaring electronic noise, an Egyptian darbuka drum and Kelis’s alternately insouciant and sexy vocal.
Who could have predicted that something this weird, experimental – and occasionally atonal – would be a global smash? And yet, who could have doubted it? Despite its thrilling sonic strangeness, Milkshake is impossibly catchy and eminently danceable: it’s like a dream about how rich and exciting pop music could be.