When music critics talk about contemporary R&B divas, Kelis is never mentioned and, for many, hardly an afterthought. It is quite a shame though, considering the body of work she has created over the past ten years. As an artist that refused to be defined by the music industry’s “cookie-cutter” labels, Kelis was a dynamic and charismatic artist who came before her time. And despite being an American singer, who set many of today’s music and fashion trends, much of Kelis’ success was attained overseas, especially in the United Kingdom, where she garnered six top-ten hits.
In 1999, Kelis broke into the music industry with a bang, as the featured singer on “Got Your Money,” a collaboration with Ol’ Dirty Bastard (Russell Tyrone Jones), one of the founding members of the hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan. The success of “Got Your Money” brought Kelis global attention, along with The Neptunes, the production duo behind her first solo effort, Kaleidoscope (Virgin, 1999). In the wake of her newfound stardom, Kelis released “Caught Out There,” the lead single off of Kaleidoscope. “Caught Out There” was a modest radio hit, eventually peaking at #9 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and #54 on the Hot 100. The song was very successful in Europe, though eventually becoming a top five hit. Her divergence from artistic norms failed to translate into sales, with Kaleidoscope debuting at #144 on the Billboard 200, on the sale of 10,736 copies during the first week of release.
Unfortunately, for Kelis, the fate of Kaleidoscope was doomed, with poor sales leading to half-hearted promotion inside the United States. Two additional singles followed: “Good Stuff” (featuring Terrar of Clipse) and “Get Along With You.” Alas, neither single managed to chart on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and, with that, the writing was on the wall for Kelis’ relationship with her label, Virgin Records. Although “Get Along With You” was a remarkable ballad, the song’s stark change in artistic direction muddled Kelis’ image, when compared against “Caught Out There,” and never generated enough steam in the United States, regardless of the fact that the song peaked at #6 on the U.K. R&B Singles chart. Having three sizable hits in the United Kingdom and following her receipt of a BRIT Award for “International Breakthrough Act,”
Kelis’ second album, Wanderland (Virgin, 2001) was exclusively released to the European market. Even with much critical acclaim, Virgin Records opted to can an American release, because “Young, Fresh ‘N’ New,” Wanderland’s lead single, failed to chart in the United States. Soon thereafter, Kelis left Virgin Records in a storm of controversy and mainstream success would evade the artist until the release of her third album, Tasty (Star Trak/Arista, 2003), with the meteoric success of her fifth single, “Milkshake.” The time between the release of Wanderland and Tasty was well spent, nevertheless, with Kelis touring with U2 and Moby. To be certain, “Milkshake” is Kelis’ signature song, if only for the global success the song achieved: a top five performance on the United World Chart, a GRAMMY nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance (2004) and her first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 chart since 1999. As sales exceeded 500,000 copies, Tasty was certified with gold status by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Sadly, promotion for Tasty soon crashed, due to the folding of her American label, Arista Records. Virgin Records, her European label, continued to promote the album—releasing singles for “Trick Me,” “Millionaire” and “In Public.” As with Kaleidoscope and Wanderland, Kelis continued to have much success in the United Kingdom, with Tasty amassing platinum sales and generating four top twenty hits (of which three, “Milkshake,” “Trick Me” and “Millionaire” were top three hits). The success of Tasty landed Kelis on Britney Spears’ The Onyx Hotel Tour. As the opening act, Kelis was able to expand her audience, by performing in front of a mainstream, pop-loving audience. Kelis’ growing base was evidenced by the top performance of her fourth album, Kelis Was Here (LaFace/Jive, 2006), on Billboard’s Hot 200 chart.
Despite the album’s strong opening sales, Kelis Was Here failed to be certified gold, although the album’s lead single, “Bossy,” garnered multi-platinum sales, a rare feat for any artist. Follow-up singles, “Blindfold Me” and “Lil’ Star” received little to no radio airplay in the United States. “Lil’ Star” topped the U.K. R&B Singles Chart, however, and became her fourth top three single in the United Kingdom. Kelis Was Here eventually received critical praise in the United States, with the album receiving a GRAMMY nomination for Best Contemporary R&B Album. In spite of eventual industry approval, Jive Records dropped Kelis in late October 2007, due to poor sales of Kelis Was Here.
Kelis’ departure from Jive closes yet another tortuous chapter in her prolific and innovative musical career. To date, none of Kelis’ albums have been able to generate platinum sales, even though she was able to generate multiple sizable hits. Her continued success in Europe is evidence of her aesthetic brilliance and the release of The Hits (Star Trak/Jive/Legacy, 2008) highlights her unbridled experimentations within the R&B genre. Hopefully, in time, the career of Kelis will be treated with much more care.