One musical trend to emerge in 2014 has been that of female artists releasing new albums on what seem to be highly appropriate and well-tailored record labels. Neneh Cherry has returned with her first solo album in 18 years on Norwegian label Smalltown Supersound, Asiatisch by Fatima Al Qadiri felt a more than comfortable fit on Hyperdub and Marissa Nadler’s July found itself in the suitably homely surroundings of Bella Union. But possibly the most well-matched and inspired linking up so far has been that of Kelis and Ninja Tune for her sixth album Food.
Towards the end of this career-spanning set at Somerset House she may downplay the extent of the change found on Food but it’s difficult to escape the sense of rejuvenation and redefinition that it projects, something that she seems to allude to herself by bookending her set with versions of Feeling Good by Nina Simone, the lines about new dawns and new days feeling particularly apt in this context.
Breakfast, the opening track from Food properly launches the show, immediately sounding confident, bold and true and confirming that the brass-rich sound of the album will be successfully replicated live (she appears on stage in a flowing blue outfit and dazzling, gold hair accessories, joined by a backing band/singers and a brass section). Cobbler, another new album highlight also appears early in the set, a sunshine-infused funk celebration that adds to the positive, feel-good vibe that envelops Somerset House tonight. The atmosphere arguably owes more however to the dropping of two hits, Millionaire and Trick Me, early into the set. The former has a sparkling lustre, and is the first of several crowd-pleasing sing-alongs of the evening, whilst the latter is as assured and lean as ever, benefiting from the prominent horns. They are followed by a surprise rendition of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Got Your Money and a classic R&B medley of Get Along With You, Good Stuff and Glow. Later, she slows down the tempo with a beautiful version of Lil Star (all of which prove that, while she’s musically striding forward with confidence, she equally has no interest in forgetting her past).
However, the presence of Food can’t be shaken off and it is arguably Friday Fish Fry that encapsulates it best, tonight standing tall in its mid-set slot, boasting a ragged, rock dynamic that she emphatically makes her own. There’s always been glimpses of evolution throughout her career (most recently on 2010’s Flesh Tone) but tracks like this ensure the latest incarnation of Kelis feels the most complete and well-realised of all. Jerk Ribs and the imperious, euphoric lift-off of Forever Be provide further confirmation.
Surprisingly, it is only really Milkshake that doesn’t quite translate live as well as hoped for (although still triumphantly received by the sell-out crowd). Tonight it is truncated and reconfigured, the bass-rupturing foundations of the original being replaced by something lighter, toned down and almost tropical in nature. The positioning of two tracks from Flesh Tone at the end of the set works better, the effervescent electro-pop of 4th Of July (Fireworks) and Acapella both given a pulsating, brassy makeover.
Endearingly, there are moments tonight where she seems a little nervous, giggly and almost reserved compared to her persona and while there’s certainly less attitude on display than we’ve witnessed in the past she’s still a captivating performer. Tonight’s show was equal parts glamour, soul, colour, seduction and elegance and, on this form, you can only see Kelis going from strength to strength.