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A love letter to ‘Flesh Tone’, the Kelis album that fortifies me when I need it

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On her fifth album, Kelis’ catharsis became communal. Flesh Tone is a record that shows originality has always been the artist’s calling card.

12 Oct 2021

Like every other 90s pre-teen, Kelis marched into my consciousness, screaming and thrashing her blonde and pink curls on debut single ‘Caught Out There’, externalising a potent internal frustration that I was too young to understand but old enough to have observed. For most people, she was seemingly forgotten about until she showed up in the yard again serving ‘Milkshake’, but she left an indelible imprint on my psyche. Her ever-evolving musical palette and her ever-changing hairstyles have kept me excited as a fan for over 20+ years. Each new Kelis era feels like discovering her all over again.

With no album is this more true than 2010’s Flesh Tone, steeped in house and electronic influence, with hook lines as immediate as any classic pop song. The sound was unexpected, but Kelis had played in this space before (as the featured artist on an obscure Diddy track called ‘Let’s Get Ill’) and a typically R&B artist making a sharp veer into an EDM lane was a fairly common career move at the beginning of the last decade. Producer, who signed Kelis to his Interscope imprint for this record, was one of the most prominent names in R&B/hip-hop championing the genre blend. He was responsible for some of the biggest smashes of the crossover period, including ‘OMG’ by Usher, ’Boom Boom Pow’ and ‘I Got A Feeling’ for his own group the Black Eyed Peas, and Britney Spears’ ‘Work Bitch’.

“Flesh Tone’s genius is in how Kelis layers the intimate and personal with the universal and relatable”

Although Flesh Tone belongs to this time period, it is not of it. While her contemporaries chased easy chart wins with floor fillers that captured the zeitgeist, Kelis crafted a lean and immaculate nine-track record that drew strength from the rapture of nightlife rather than trying to synthesise it. 

Flesh Tone’s genius is in how Kelis layers the intimate and personal with the universal and relatable. Though it’s a divorce album, it’s one that centres a new love – her son. Flesh Tone sees Kelis emerging from the wreckage of her old life, bruised and scarred, holding tight to a baby. She would later reveal that the bruises and scars were not just metaphorical, alleging physical and mental abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, rapper Nas (who has since denied these allegations). She was seven months pregnant when she filed for divorce, terrified at the prospect of raising a child in such a toxic environment.

At the time it was released, the underpinning concepts of birth and rebirth showcased a familiar image of Kelis – bold, unapologetic, feminine – in an exhilarating new light. Becoming a parent hadn’t softened her edge or altered her course, rather it had enriched and amplified the vitality that made her such a compelling figure from the very beginning.

Crucially she presents her new role as a purpose but not the purpose: in closing track ‘Song For The Baby’, where Kelis lays out her promises to her son, she pledges to raise him with love and not “obsession”. In a world where women are still treated as second class citizens and motherhood can seem like an obligation or a sacrifice instead of a blessing, Flesh Tone’s authentic wonderment offers reassurance. Kelis shows motherhood to be an experience, rather than an identity – an ellipsis, not a full stop.

In 2018, when Kelis publicly discussed the alleged abuse she endured in her relationship and marriage – and she did “endure”, by her own admission she was almost recklessly determined to stay the course and make things work – Flesh Tone was refracted through a new prism. This new context illuminates the traces of survival streaked through those 38 minutes of euphoria. The powerful, thumping chorus of ‘Brave’ (“I was super tough, but now I’m super strong”) encapsulates that feeling succinctly. There is grit in hanging in there, but it takes a different kind of strength to let go and walk away.  

Broadly though, Flesh Tone is an album about love: love for self, love for others, love for life. There is no explicit romance, but tracks like ‘Acapella’, ‘4th Of July (Fireworks)’ and ‘Home’, are sexy and devotional if you want them to be. ‘Scream’ and ‘Emancipate’ revel in personal empowerment, reminding us that we are worthy of life, entitled to use our voices and claim our space. Then there is the “we are the stars” refrain from ‘22nd Century’, which unites every human on earth in our most basic commonality – the stardust that we are made of. It evokes a simple vision of the future where “everybody can be”, and when Kelis sings it, it feels possible. 

“In the same way that a religious person might turn to their sacred texts for guidance, Flesh Tone is an album that fortifies me when I need it”

In the same way that a religious person might turn to their sacred texts for guidance, Flesh Tone is an album that fortifies me when I need it. Through headphones, the seamless mix makes it an almost meditative listen, blasted through speakers it becomes a pulse – propulsive, motivating. Performed live, singing along and dancing in a crowd, Kelis’ catharsis becomes communal. It is easy to understand why she was inspired by the dance scene for this album – the club is every music lover’s church, and there is no better place for an emotional bloodletting than the altar of the dance floor.

Is there another record that sounds like this? True originality has always been Kelis’ calling card. You can trace the evolution of pop back to her work with The Neptunes: debut album Kaleidoscope and the follow-up Wanderland, both form the blueprint to the production duo’s entire sound. The Neptunes influence permeated the 00s – hits ranging from Britney’s ‘I’m A Slave 4 U, Beyoncé’s ‘Work It Out’ and even Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ have roots in those early Kelis projects. But the Kelis touch? Her instinctive melodies and singular phrasing? That uniquely versatile vocal? Impossible to replicate.

Flesh Tone was far from a commercial success – lead single ‘Acapella’ hit #5 in the UK but the album failed to reach the Top 40 in any country. But regardless, it did reap the critical acclaim and cult status among pop music fans it deserved. Kelis has always been two steps ahead of the game, doggedly pushing against the boundaries set up to corral women (and black women, especially) into narrowly defined spaces. It’s this quality which makes her such a treasure.

You can check in at this link for all the Kelis guest edit items as they come in through the week.