Kelis‘s recent transformation into a unicorn has been a perplexing concept for a couple months. She’s always been daring in her style, making bold statements with “mom jeans” and “that which shall not be named“—looks that are often puzzling but mostly admirable for their bravery. But never has she gone this far off the grid, animorphing into a slightly scary alien creature with Alexander McQueen hooves.
Her show at Santos Party House last night shed some light on her revamped magical faerie steez. Armed with a DJ, live drummer and mic stand that lit up like a candy-raver’s glowstick, she ran through her first official performance of songs from the forthcoming Flesh Tone, all tracks that built off the idea of her David Guetta-produced single “A Cappella.” A fistful of throbbing techno and house music geared towards Chelsea mega-clubs and big tent dance festivals, with lyrics about transformation and (of course) heartbreak, the new songs vary between borderline Jerz Shore and workout playlist. However shaky the oonce-oonce, though, one thing was steady: the quality of Kelis’ gorgeous throaty alto, pitch-perfect and shimmering like a thousand golden rings of Middle Earth. The new explicitly dance angle is something we’re frankly shocked she hasn’t tried before, but as she belted out breakup lyrics like “I’m a braveheart” (ouch/nice one), it became clear that Kelis is intent on fashioning herself as the Princess Neytiri of a pre-apocalyptic, post-Burning Man dance culture—and if that doesn’t exist now, she will create it, even if she has to sneak in a few older tracks to lure her fans along (“Millionaire,” “Trick Me” and “Get Along with You” as encore). She certainly seemed happy to be there. During “Milkshake,” which she performed as a sort of live mash-up over Madonna’s “Holiday,” Kelis flitted around the stage while a machine blew soap bubbles around her. Later, her DJ dropped Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor” and she worked the stage, booty popping and just wilding out for fun. They were the moves of a woman clearly transformed by motherhood and divorce, a woman liberating her sound from a rut (though Kelis Was Here was underrated), a woman implying that she’s just trying to lighten up and keep it moving. And if that involves transmogrifying into a magical, mythical creature, so be it.
Opening act Maluca was doing a little bit of her own role-playing, topped with a four-foot-long braid that out-chutzpah’d even Madonna’s ambitious blond tail from the “Vogue” days. She ran through a grip of new songs that bridged the gap between mambo and bass-heavy club tunes, while proving that not only can she spit and deflect game (as on her single “El Tigeraso”), this girl can actually sing. If anyone embodies the spirit of downtown New York right now, it’s her—she’s as city kid as one can possibly be, repping Dominican culture with banjee flavor, the spiritual descendant of her favorite band ESG. For a moment, as she propelled her kicky self around the stage in a barrage of strobe flashes, flanked by the two back-up dancers she calls her “cookies,” we got a taste of what it must have felt like at Limelight in the city’s club heyday—all rhythm and energy, a local star transforming into something bigger right before our eyes. Not to hyperbolize by invoking this, but her presence last night felt so promising, like something we’ll write in our memoirs about having seen. Then again, maybe it was the topknot.