As Kevin Rowland knows, pulling off a whiplash change of musical direction can backfire on you. It can make you look like a sales-chasing dilettante, or worse. But Kelis, an RnB artist for more than 10 years, has made a dance album with such confidence and aplomb that it seems no more of a shock than a new hairstyle.
Flesh Tone credits house-man of the moment David Guetta as producer, and he brings the same vitality and sheen to it as he has to Madonna's work. Kelis has always been a strong character and a brave musician–this is what carries the album and assures your ears that it's no out-of-element flounder. It's arresting from the start, the hooks having immediate familiarity without directly pilfering. References leap exuberantly between decades–Moroder here, Justice there, some sweaty Ibiza melody filtering through.
Kelis's honey-husky voice slips easily into the hypnotic repetitions of dance music vocalisation; she uses the classic language of love songs and the soaring declarations of generalised euphoria particular to house music. The sense is that she's singing of her love for her child, this made explicit in Brave (the most Madonna-esque track here) and breezy closer Song for the Baby, but seeming more heartfelt in the astonishing centrepiece of Acapella. This is an absolute trampolining technicolour dancefloor monster, a model of songwriting precision but also the sound of pure joy, so happy it sounds like it's distorting its own fuzzed-up backing track with its bouncing. It's followed by Scream, a beat-free piano-based meditation giving way to Fedde-le-Grandian fist-pumping. Wow!
The album is surprisingly taut–nine tracks, most around four minutes long–incredibly disciplined for an RnB artist, unheard of for a dance act. There's an understanding of how dance music works and a willingness to rule-break–sometimes build-ups go nowhere and structures are discarded, but there's tremendous self-assurance in every swerve and extended breakdown. It only improves with further listens, the rich layering revealing itself and the hooks bedding in. It's a sensual and exhilarating album, and Kelis is a unique treasure. --Sarah Bee
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