Kelis Rogers was from New York and Pharrell Williams was from Virginia. They met in a hallway. In 1996, the 16-year-old singer’s impromptu audition for The Neptunes — the avant-garde production dyad made up of Williams and his producing partner, Chad Hugo — sealed her musical fate. Rasping like Brandy and precocious like Aaliyah, Kelis demonstrated the brass mandatory for entrance in the Neptunes’ iconoclastic cosmos. Eventually, she herself would embody their turn-of-the-millenium sound. Kelis’s appearances on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money” (1999) and Clipse’s “When the Last Time” (2002) were guest spots for hooks, but she could reduce MCs to props. At 5 feet 10 inches, Kelis was taller than a lot of them, too, and sterling, towering over Pharrell and Hugo and their male associates in the videos.
In fashion and in attitude, wearing massive bleached afros and oily, glittery body makeup, Kelis seemed to self-alienate from the prevailing dogma of the decade she performed in. She presented as an Afrofuturist, one who eschewed monochromatics and old lines, one who styled herself like a raunchy, strong superhero out of ’70s blaxploitation. Her throaty singing, which she could subdue enough to register as rhythmic talking, avoided the melisma and runs that defined many of the black female singers who were her contemporaries. The era was prone to experimentation: The mid-’90s to the mid-aughts were a rebuilding era for hip-hop and R&B, and the construction dissolved divisions, both in themes and in production. The Neptunes were instrumental in that restructuring. Ultimately, though, the sound was about pushing genre, not skirting it.
After the fact, Kelis would say she “never really thought of herself as an R&B artist,” that black people who sing just get automatically packaged that way, and she was right, about both things. “Caught Out There,” the first single off her 1999 solo debut, Kaleidoscope, in which she modulated her signature talk-singing with unbridled yelling, was a piece of pop theater more than R&B. Her stickiest and most successful single, “Milkshake,” from 2003’s Tasty, accomplished similar drama, but this time it was a softcore ode to men, specifically Nas (whom she went on to marry in 2005), not a dismissal of them. That Kelis could turn New York’s purest ideological rapper into a video boy at her behest said all you needed to know about her pull. Kelis was singular and mononymous. Her first three albums were all one-word and conceptual — Kaleidoscope, Wanderland, Tasty.
The title of the fourth album, the one she made without The Neptunes, was three words, a definite statement: Kelis Was Here. Released on August 22, 2006, it remains her most creatively anarchic project (with respect to 2001’s European release, Wanderland). In interviews, Kelis has maintained that departing from The Neptunes’ sound was a practice of finding her own. She recruited huge hitmakers, including Scott Storch, Max Martin, and the R&B-allegiant Raphael Saadiq, yielding a quirky album with only one obvious hit. “I’m the first girl to scream on the track,” she declares on “Bossy,” the biggest single, referencing her vocal signature on “Caught Out There.” “Bossy” easily became the straightforward, unbothered girl-anthem of that year. It was arguably more popular as a ringtone than as a song. (Side note: In 2014, Kelis was asked about Sheryl Sandberg’s crusade against the “badness” of the word “bossy,” and said: “Bossy? Give me a break.”)
The rest of Kelis Was Here? Frustrated and frustrating, sensually ambitious, with surreal, beautiful moments. Critics seem to gather on the consensus that the album was intriguingly intelligent, if unjustifiably disjointed and long. Kelis Was Here takes you to a number of places. The singer tries for warm and inspirational on “Living Proof,” a mid-tempo R&B ballad about relationship wonder. “Blindfold Me,” featuring Nas, offers the inverse — a skeletal beat for a song more sexually literal than “Milkshake,” its Neptunes-produced equivalent. “Till the Wheels Fall Off” travels back and forth between an approximation of late disco and ’80s teeny-bopper R&B, the two connected by a flashy guitar break. “Have a Nice Day,” conversely, centralizes Spanish guitar. Kelis does her most evolved singing on this album, iterating half-transposed harmonies, filling out her range in the lower register. She also raps, strangely, on “Circus.” You can think of the opening line of “Trilogy” — “There’s only one way to my galaxy” — as a comment on her quest to isolate herself. The video for “Lil Star” shows constellations in the form of Kelis and Cee Lo, hanging above earth. Kelis Was Here tested the viability of building a universe and populating it with versions of herself.
Kelis Was Here’s lack of a clear throughline was a deviation Kelis wanted, to an extent. The album was conceived on Kelis’s terms: “They didn’t want to make Kelis Was Here at all. ... It wasn’t a good time,” Kelis said later, talking about her former label, Jive Records. “But I still think all the songs on there are funny. I fought so much. I was like, ‘I’m keeping every single song on here. I don’t care.’” What unified Kelis Was Here was the artist’s insistence that everything be there; knowing this places a sometimes difficult album in a clarifying light. Compared to Nelly Furtado’s Loose, released that same year, it looks especially frenetic. Loose was a masterpiece of cohesion for her producer, Timbaland; Furtado, who had debuted as a Canadian folk-adjacent singer, was cast as a secondary agent in the riskiest move of her career. But there’s no mistaking that Kelis steered the direction of Kelis Was Here, regardless of all the diversions it took along the way. In pop, R&B, and the liminal subgenres in between, entering a producer’s domain is a well-worn path to stardom for female vocalists. Being seen as a muse — or worse, a Svengali creation — is an attendant risk that Kelis, who could have easily ridden The Neptunes’ wave on into the 2010s, bravely didn’t take.
The album sales were never what she deserved, but Kelis was here. Women know that pop is a continuum, but sometimes it’s entertaining to astrologically categorize one’s self as a Beyoncé or a Rihanna. Each represents a pole housing one fantasy of female personality: Beyoncés are subdued, professional, contrived, and married; Rihannas are effortless, aroused, loud, and perpetually single. Lineage is a messy affair, but Kelis really is owed, and underappreciated, for her model to the Rihannas of the pop world. Kelis, sauntering, careful and unafraid to experiment, managed to separate herself, even when she was connected to a collective that had an identifiable and therefore restricting artistic view. Telling us that she was here, Kelis mapped a blueprint for honest independence.