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Kelis is the ultimate pop chameleon. From her Neptunes-produced beginnings, through her EDM Queen days and into her current soulful persona, it’s hard to find a common thread that runs through her 15-year catalogue. One would assume that live, she’d have to leave most of the old stuff behind in order to deliver a coherent set that highlights her latest album, Food, yet she manages to pull together a greatest hits set with ease.
At The Hi-Fi, Kelis played the part of Motown hero, commanding the stage with the airs of a musical legend. Backed by a forceful arrangement of brass and organic percussion, she sounded as if she’d been mentored by Smokey Robinson all her life. She seemed like a woman proud of her years in the business and content with her diverse back catalogue, though willing to alter it to suit her current mode.
As such, hits like Tricky and Millionaire received subtle makeovers. Beats were replaced by brass and raps were traded in for soulful dance breaks. It’s always a risky move to rework songs that hold nostalgic value to so many, but the crowd seemed more than happy to groove a little bit slower than usual.
It quickly became obvious that the tracks from Food are those that benefit the most from the new stylings. Friday Fish Fry was given a boost by a powerful backing band, and Kelis’ husky tones held their own. The culinary odes continued with Breakfast, which the singer commanded as though she was running a stage and a busy diner kitchen all at the same time.
Watch: Kelis – Rumble
Kelis’ most explicitly R&B tunes, like Caught Out There or Bossy, didn’t make it onto the setlist, though she did make time to bring the boys to the yard with Milkshake. The 2003 hit fit seamlessly with the food-centred theme of the show and the singer is just as sexy as she was in that iconic video. She indulged in some serious booty-shaking while relying upon an excitable crowd to call-back many of the lyrics.
There are many ways this show could’ve gone very wrong. A drastic change in sound often means shedding half your fan base and yet the crowd ate out of Kelis’ hand for the entire set. She even managed to transform her feature on Calvin Harris’ track Bounce into a dingy jazz club rendezvous.
This was bettered only by 4th July (Fireworks), the highlight of her 2010 record, Fleshtones. In its original form it’s a euphoric ’90s house throwback, but live its electronic production was replaced with an organic vitality. And that chorus still sounded as powerful as ever.
The most gratifying thing to see was that, after 15 years, Kelis still has the ability to churn out quality originals. Food‘s two singles, Rumble and Jerk Ribs were a highlight of the evening. The latter had the audience dancing like an American Bandstand crowd in 1965 and Kelis looked suitably thrilled by the response to the newest additions to her lengthy discography.
Making the transition from commercial radio to a more adult contemporary sound, Kelis has managed to grow up with her fans. Her Sydney show presented an artist that’s a vastly different Kelis from the last time she toured Australia, yet the crowd was right there with her. The set was full of heart and a reckless abandon that gave the sense that she knew she’d already paid her dues. At this point, it’s all just for pure enjoyment.
Kelis’ latest album, ‘Food’, is available now. Kelis will be performing at Splendour In The Grass this weekend – follow all the news here.
Photo: Kelis At The Hi-Fi Sydney, 2014 / Photo: Ashley Mar