- Kelis: Her body is a wonderland.
Breasts: Kids love 'em! Grown men, too -- and while Ruben Studdard has a nice set, most dudes prefer the ones on women. Why? Chemistry. See that guy across the room from you? His testosterone started boiling the second he first registered the joys of feminine pulchritude, and it probably won't stop until his relatives are picking out his coffin.
The creative team behind the video for "Milkshake," the Kelis mega-hit, understands this fascination and takes cruel and unusual advantage of it. The title refers to jiggling hooters, and in the clip -- set in a diner filled with flirty waitresses and panting fellas unable to keep their eyeballs in their sockets -- the miraculously endowed Kelis (last name Rogers) demonstrates a handful of ways to move them around: the slow, side-to-side wobble; the roiling, full-body shimmy; the mid-orgasmic, serpentine undulation, and so on. At times, she's seen gnawing on a Maraschino cherry in lip-smacking close-up, sucking her pinky, blowing bubbles into a frosty beverage, mounting a counter to deliver some well-aimed pelvic thrusts, and displaying ass cleavage while bending over to pull (we're serious) two buns from an oven.
A compendium of erotic action sprinkled with humor, the video helps explain why "Milkshake" has been embraced by uncounted thousands of horny male teenagers and twentysomethings a lot like them. But the song's clever, irresistible variation on jump-rope rhythms, devised by the production duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, has also made it a favorite of grade-schoolers from coast to coast. The sudden explosion in the number of youngsters on her bandwagon has left Kelis with an interesting dilemma. Should she soften her style in acknowledgment of tender eyes and ears, or simply ignore the demographic mutations in order to keep her sexually mature constituency (very) satisfied?
"Don't get me wrong -- the last thing I want to be is a role model," she says. "That's never been something that I've wanted, never been a goal of mine. I just find it inevitable. Whether I'm good or bad or whatever, there are people watching me."
After the briefest of pauses, she changes course. "Forget the people," she declares. "It's the kids. I could care less about the people. They're adults. They can make their own choices. The kids are more important, because they're a lot more impressionable. And although I don't want to be the one who decides anything for them, some of them look to me for, well, a way."
As these observations indicate, Kelis's bosom is supplemented by a fully functioning brain. Far from being an inarticulate love object, she's bright, opinionated, and occasionally caustic. Just prior to last month's Grammy Awards telecast, for instance, she was quoted dissing OutKast, Musiq, Les Nubians, and Erykah Badu, who, like her, were nominated in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category. "I look at the other nominees, and I don't feel honored," she allegedly said. "It's a joke."
A Harlem native and self-confessed wild child, Kelis was on her own by age 16. But, through her attendance at the LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts (the institution that inspired the setting for the movie and TV series Fame), she came to the attention of numerous rap scenesters, including the RZA, who served as the sonic architect of the Wu-Tang Clan. The RZA subsequently employed Kelis on 1997's The Pick, the Sickle & the Shovel by the Gravediggaz, one of his side projects. Later, Kelis crooned the hook for "Got Your Money," an authentic piece of hip-hop folk art found on 1999's Nigga Please, an album by Clan member/idiot savant Ol' Dirty Bastard.
Still, her most important associates were Williams and Hugo, known collectively as the Neptunes; they produced "Got Your Money." Under their tutelage, Kelis landed a recording contract in 1998 that led directly to Kaleidoscope, her debut, which was released the following year. The back of the album features the grammatically awkward statement, "All songs and instruments were produced, performed and arranged by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo." They co-wrote all the songs as well; Kelis is listed as a contributor on only 3 out of 14 offerings. The album received moderate domestic airplay, but got more attention overseas. Its performance dictated Virgin's bottom-line-motivated indifference to Wanderland, her 2001 follow-up. To date, the album remains unavailable in America except as a high-priced import.
Tasty -- put out by Arista/Star Trak, not Virgin -- isn't quite a declaration of independence, but it does distance her from the Neptunes. Williams and Hugo produce four songs on the CD, but despite the success of "Milkshake," she makes it plain that the partnership is at an end. "It had to happen," she says. "Growth was a part of it."
The disc finds her already keeping company with other sound sculptors -- most notably Dallas Austin, who helmed TLC's biggest successes, D'Angelo cohort Raphael Saadiq, and rap groundbreaker Nas, who just happens to be Kelis's fiancé.
Like Nas, who once raised doubts about the identity of 9-11 conspirators, Kelis is attracted to conspiracy theories. The firestorm that followed the semi-baring of Janet Jackson's breast at this year's Super Bowl halftime festivities was "all a ploy," she says. "The media doesn't want us to focus on the fact that we're bombing families." She's equally suspicious of self-appointed virtue cops who've used the Jackson incident to justify another round of attacks on sexuality in popular culture, but admits that she's paying attention to shifting standards.
"I definitely do think about that," she says. "Artistically, there may be places that I'd like to go and stuff that I'd like to do, but as a 'role model,' I don't go there. It's inappropriate. There's got to be a line drawn."