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Kelis on Kaleidoscope, remaining undefeated, and pulling a fake gun on The Chris Rock Show

On the 20th anniversary of her momentous debut Kaleidoscope, and Kelis is reckoning with what her album means and meant.

February 21, 2020
Kelis on <i>Kaleidoscope</i>, remaining undefeated, and pulling a fake gun on <i>The Chris Rock Show</i> Photo by George De Sota/Newsmakers  

Kelis is taking a break from discussing her debut album Kaleidoscope to tell me about her obsession with sci-fi, particularly the work of the late author Octavia Butler. The release of the 40-year-old singer’s first album in 1999 tracks with her love for stories from beyond the stars. "If I wasn't writing, I was reading," she says of that time. "It was always about creative stuff, writers and musicians and movies and things that were exciting and interesting. It's different when you're 18, and all these ideas are new."

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Kaleidoscope emerged like a Terminator in the pop landscape, a powerful creation of humankind with no desire to fit in. The project was recorded in Sandbridge, Virginia with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo a.k.a. The Neptunes, when their label Star Trak was less an entertainment institution than an aspiration: Kaleidoscope was the supernova that started it all. “The album wasn't even the plan, to be honest,” Kelis tells me. “It literally just happened.”

The record is timeless. Kelis’s voice conjures divas of the ‘60s as she sings about conspiracies (“Mars”), roller skating (“Roller Rink”), and the kinds of love that make you kill (“Caught Out There”) and help you heal (“Ghetto Children”); the trivial and the eternal conspire to paint a full, vivid picture of the person behind the artist. Williams and Hugo display why their prismatic jazzy productions helped define an era. If the album were released today by a SoundCloud artist, it would lead to a major label bidding war and cover stories about the new future of R&B. Kaleidoscope wasn’t a big hit stateside at the time — Kelis would find more success in the U.K. — but today’s 20th anniversary reissue of Kaleidoscope comes after pop music has spent decades stewing with the album’s far-reaching influence. Our brains are now ready to hear Kaleidoscope in all its raw, radical glory.

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And where is Kelis 20 years later? Living on a farm on the outskirts of Los Angeles with her husband Mike Mora and their four-year-old son. She took a break from music after fifth album, 2006’s Kelis Was Here, and trained as a saucier at Le Cordon Bleu; she has her own line of sauces called “Bounty & Full” and has published a cookbook called My Life On A Plate. Her biggest recent public appearance was a spot as Daisy on the U.K. version of The Masked Singer. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a life as eventful as hers, the creation of Kaleidoscope doesn’t stand out in her memory. “I have a different relationship with the record now,” she says. “It's like looking at a photo album of yourself as a child.” Earlier this week, Kelis and I spoke about Kaleidoscope’s legacy, how she is hardwired to not let the music industry destroy her, and her plans to release new music.

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The FADER: Before Kaleidoscope, you created a girl group, BLU, and you worked on the second Gravediggaz album. How did those experiences prepare you for creating your first album?

Kelis: I think my whole life was preparing me for the first album, and everything in between. I went to school for theater and my dad was always performing. And not in a weird, staged, parental kind of way now. That was my life with family: Me being artistic just made sense, so it was easy just to get on stage with my dad.

It makes sense to me that you say your whole life was building up to that album, because I do feel like Kaleidoscope offers direct insights into who Kelis is as a person. On “Roller Rink” for example, I really feel like I'm getting a sense of how you feel joy.

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That's very nice. I don't think I've ever heard it described that way. I was a healthy child. I was artistic because I wanted to be and I was allowed to be. There were always instruments in my home [and] I played instruments my whole life. So to be 17 and to be recording an album, I had no understanding or desire for fame. It was really just sort of like, Hey, do you want to do an album? Okay. Sounds fun, great.

So you weren't nervous at all?

No. Not about that, no.

Did nerves come into the process at all?

Yeah, performing for the first time in front of 20,000 people in a country where you don't speak the language and no one looks like you. That will definitely get your nerves going. You step in and no one mentions it until you're about to walk out on stage. They're like, Oh, by the way, you're the first Black person to ever perform here. And you're like, What?! What do you mean?? Why is this happening?! I did not sign up for this! But then you push through and you get through it and think, I actually can do this, and what else am I going to do if I don't do this?

Did you feel any sort of pressure being the first Black performer in these spaces to really show out?

I don't think that I understood the gravitas of the situation. I understand a lot more now than I did at the time. I was 17, 18 years old. I was too young to even understand that this was a different era, a different time. I was like, I want to not trip on stage. That was the main concern. I had no idea that these things were going to mean something to me, [that] they were going to mean something to everyone else.

And it's not like I was fighting to be on these stages: Someone booked me there, and I was like, Okay. But I was by myself, [without] almost any of the team that I recorded the record with. I'm alone now. We put this record that we were playing around with, making a silly video in the afternoon in Virginia Beach while we were cracking jokes and pulling pranks and being kids. And now it's serious. I'm on a stage and none of those people are there and I'm by myself. And [the festival]’s like, Go for it, aren't you excited? What? No. I don't even know how I got here! I didn't know anyone was taking this seriously.

I don’t know if this artist is going to give me credit. But I don’t care. I can care about the fact that I never played myself. Everything I did, I did from my heart.

Did it sting at all when you were told your music wasn’t “Black enough” to get played on R&B stations?

I never felt like that made any sense. I always felt like, You're wrong. How is a white guy going to tell me what's Black enough, first of all? Secondly, how is anybody going to tell me what's Black enough for that record, you know what I mean? I had no identity issues, so the fact that someone felt like they're trying to put these things on me was appalling. So I think that all of my responses and my rebellion started to come after the fact, it came from that. It came from being, constantly someone trying to tell me what I was and what I wasn't enough of.

I got in trouble because I pulled this gun on The Chris Rock Show — it was not a real gun by the way, it was a pink rhinestone gun. I thought it was adorable. All of the labels are like, You can't do that. And then all of these things started to happen, like, Well, now that we're here, let's look at the fact that you've gained some weight. I didn't care. I didn't want to be insecure. It wasn't even a thought. It was really just like, I'm out here doing this. I didn't realize that body image is going to be a thing and that my hair was going to be a conversation, or that me yelling was supposed to be not black enough. Any of the things that were coming at me, I was just doing what we were doing because it was fun.

Listening to you speak about this time in your life, I don’t get the sense that you felt very vulnerable. But as a 17- or 18-year-old child in the music industry, you're definitely going to be in situations where you are vulnerable.

Oh, 100 percent. The whole concept of this is putting yourself in a very vulnerable situation on every level, just on every front, on every front it is. It is what it is. But I never felt vulnerable.

What memories stand out to you from the recording process of Kaleidoscope?

I'll say that my work habits from that time have lasted me all these years. I would work from 10 [or] 11 a.m. to about 3 or 4. And that was it. We just had fun. It was fun to be able to watch what we were doing. We really didn't think about it that much. It's not that I had these memories burnt into my mind, it was just a fun time.

This is something: I remember sitting in my tiny box of an apartment in New York in Harlem on 149th Street, watching this show about trying to colonize Mars. And I was like, That's crazy. And then we talked about what we wanted to write about like, Yo, I want to write about the show. They're trying to colonize Mars, what the hell is that about? I was a huge science fiction [fan] and I always felt like they tried to write us out of the future. They're trying to send everybody white to Mars. There goes the song. I opened my show up with that song for years.

So I didn't really have super memorable moments in recording. It's like asking someone “Do you remember a very special time at your job?” Probably not. I'm grateful to have a job, even more grateful if it's something you like to do. But it becomes your job, and it's like, it was that even then. We had fun, and I had made music my whole life. So it wasn't a new experience. I was just like, this is fun, you get to make songs that are ridiculous and no one else is doing that right now.

How would you describe Kaleidoscope’s legacy to someone who's discovering it for the first time with this reissue?

Here's the thing: I'm very realistic about my position in the world as it pertains to how I survive, right? So I can sit here and be like, I know what it meant, but I can't live my life like that. I know that I was the first Black artist of this generation to do what I did. I know that. I know that I changed how girls wear their hair. I know I changed things more than once. I know that I had to be relentlessly freaking bold. I know that there's a whole crop of artists right now that don't even realize that they're able to do what it is they're doing right now because women like me did it first. I'm aware of all of that. The thing is, I can't live my life with that on my shoulder.

I also can't pretend that I was so aware of it the whole time. I was just doing what I knew I needed to do, and I was being creative the way I know that I need to do in order to wake up in the morning, look at myself, and be like, I like her, cool, keep going.

It's the past, and it happened and we're here now, and I'm grateful for it. The way that I hold onto it is the fact that I am really content. Every time I did something, I know that it's genuine and that it changed things because it was genuine, just enough for me to be able to say, I like who I am. And that, for me, is enough. I can't speak to how people receive it. I don't know if this artist is going to give me credit. But I don't care. I can care about the fact that I never played myself. Everything I did, I did from my heart.

You’re working on new music at the moment. How’s that going?

Going slow. But it's going. I'm happy with where I'm at, as far as what I've done so far. I feel like I haven't made a full commitment to lock myself in and just do what I need to do. I've just been a week here, a week here.

Earlier this month you were profiled by The Guardian and accused Pharrell and Chad Hugo of stealing the publishing for your first two albums. Have they reached out to you since that piece was published?

No, they haven't reached out to me in freaking 20 years. They're certainly not going to do it now. I definitely didn't reveal my path and my truth for any sort of anything. I just said it. It wasn't even like I planned to, I just said it. It's true and I didn't expect anything.

Looking back 20 years ago, who was Kelis when the album was being made, and how that person is different or the same as today?

I'm exactly the same person I've always been since I was four years old. My personality is the same, but I have grown in the sense of I'm mature in how I handle situations and the obvious stuff. I feel the way I've always felt. I'm exactly the same person. I think I would be this person if I had gone to be a teacher, if I had gone to be a fucking astronaut.

My personality has always been this way. I have an opinion, my mind works quickly, I process information relatively quickly, so I have a quick response. I am very in tune with myself, so I'm not afraid to express how I feel. And I'm creative by nature. Everything I think of, I think of in terms of sound and movement. That's just how I am. I've always been that way. I don't make any apologies for myself. I never have.

Kelis on Kaleidoscope, remaining undefeated, and pulling a fake gun on The Chris Rock Show