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Review: Flesh Tone

August 11, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: Kelis makes the big jump from quirky R&B to hard dance with the help of some of the biggest producers in the game.

Fun Facts

  • This is Kelis’s 5th studio album and the first on Will.I.Am’s imprint. She left her previous label after the fairly low U.S. sales of her previous album Kelis Was Here.
  • Kelis recorded a good chunk of this album while she was pregnant with her kid. Kelis gave birth to her son Knight less than a year before Flesh Tone was released.
  • This is Kelis’ first album since her divorce from Nas.

Ups

  • The album’s lyrics are printed on zoomed-in art of a heart for a reason. Much like Christina Aguilera on Bionic, Kelis is able to synthesize her artistic talent and experiences to make music that is catchy enough to appeal to anyone but personal enough to help her stand out from her dance diva peers. This is an electro album about God, having a kid, striking out against the judgmental, and reclaiming independence from a deadbeat ex, but those experiences connect Kelis with an audience beyond the visceral level. It’s all very “high-bandwidth.”
  • Like Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster, Flesh Tone’s tracklisting and running time make it feel more like an EP. Unlike The Fame Monster, which was all over the place musically, Kelis and her production team keep the music pretty cohesive, which is pretty amazing since a lot of producers (Burns, Boys Noize, DJ Ammo, Free School, David Guetta, Benny Benassi and more) chipped in backing tracks. It makes for a better whole.
  • While most of the producers play to their strengths, especially Guetta on “Acapella” and “Scream”, occasionally you get a surprise. I normally find Boys Noize’s music to be abrasive and difficult to listen to for a long time, but on “22nd Century,” his typically syncopated beats go really well with the melodic piano lines and Kelis’s cooing.
  • And sometimes playing to your strengths leads to success. Between the cool keys and singalong chorus, Kelis and Guetta make a great pair on “Acapella.” On “Brave,” Benassi’s sick bass line goes with Kelis’s hard-edged lyrics like beer and barbecue.

Downs

  • The transitions between songs are awkward. Look, if you’re going to continuously mix your dance album a la The Chemical Brothers, make sure your songs actually blend together. Don’t start bringing in another song, then fade into silence, and then start up ten seconds of the next song within one track. The end result is that most of the songs end up starting in weird places and ending with messy collisions of noise. Either blend your songs or don’t blend them. (This may be a problem only for the CD version. Maybe the digital or vinyl versions are edited differently.)
  • Given the pedigree of the production team, a lot of the music doesn’t really stand out. Maybe that’s meant to give Kelis more of the spotlight, but if you are at all familiar with these producers’ past work, the results feel just a little phoned in.
  • Kelis’s thin, breathy singing voice is well suited to her past R&B catalog and the sparse, quirky instrumentation of her singles, but it doesn’t carry a chorus as well atop the jackhammer beats and blaring basslines of David Guetta and Boys Noize. Her lyrics and intentions go well with the unsubtle music, but her voice falls short (except on “Acapella,” and “22nd Century” where she is gold).

Conclusion: Overall Flesh Tone is very cohesive and the listener can really sense the intentions of everyone involved, but I find this record to be a little off. The production is catchy but lacks melody and Kelis shows passion and guts through her lyrics but her vocal range doesn’t fit the music very well. I attribute that to the challenges of making a big genre switch and going to the hot talent with not as much consideration given to producer/artist fit, but if Kelis sticks to her guns and finds a production team that can better fit her abilities and performance style (I’m thinking Alan Braxe or Matthew Herbert), I would expect her next record to be stellar.

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