In the world of R&B, Kelis is an anomaly, a pretty singer who likes to be disliked, feuds like a gangsta rapper, and dresses like a Ludlow Street fashionista. Today, as she combs the racks at What Goes Around Comes Around, a vintage-clothing showroom in Tribeca, she is trying to take credit for resurrecting eighties MC Hammer pants. “I told my friends they were coming back for three years, but they laughed at me,” she says. “Now I’m all about jumpsuits.” Unsurprisingly, she’s a frequent victim of Us Weekly’s “Fashion Police” patrol.
She’s wearing enormous white bubble sunglasses and tight, ultrahigh-waisted flares. (“These are new—real eighties jeans give you a soccer-mom butt,” she says.) There is a long, homely rat tail hanging down the back of her retro Salt-N-Pepa crop. The only thing that betrays her pop-star status is the conspicuous array of diamonds adorning her ears, wrist, and fingers, including a giant rock from her husband, Nas, the acclaimed New York rapper. He has her naked body tattooed on his bicep.
The men’s magazine King once decreed Kelis “hip-hop’s hottest housewife,” but her persona is far more complex than that. Raised in Harlem and educated at the progressive Country Day School and the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art, the 27-year-old singer effortlessly straddles an array of social circles, including rock (she toured with U2) and the downtown club scene (“I’m a gay guy’s best accessory”). She is a smart, opinionated, quasi-feminist sex symbol who can’t stop telling everyone to admire the goods and then fuck off.
On her first single, 1999’s “Caught Out There,” she screams, “I hate you so much right now” at a cheating boyfriend. On her biggest hit, 2003’s “Milkshake,” a tribute to the effects booty shaking has on the mammary glands, she taunts: “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard / They’re like, it’s better than yours … I can teach you but I have to charge.” On her current single, “Bossy,” from her new album, Kelis Was Here, she calls herself “the bitch y’all love to hate.” Her provocations are amusing but haven’t endeared her to R&B’s all-important female audience, which prefers its divas to at least pretend they’re vulnerable. At a time when fallen pop stars will cry off their false eyelashes to regain our love, Kelis declares, “You don’t have to love me … but you will respect me.”
“For me, saying ‘I’m bossy’ is a cute, tongue-in-cheek way of saying that I’m in control of my life,” she says. “Being the ideal of a strong woman means utilizing all the things that God gives you. People are always saying to me, ‘You’re a strong female, so why are you wearing a bikini on the cover of that magazine?’ Being a strong woman is misconstrued to be something evil and ugly.”
In the “Bossy” video, Kelis writhes around in a bikini and stilettos, but also spoofs the tropes of male rap, flaunting her diamond-encrusted teeth as the camera caresses wet, shirtless men—and, inexplicably, a blue poodle. “She’s a boss, no doubt, but I wouldn’t say she’s mean or rude,” says the veteran MC Too $hort, who’s in the video. “Original is the word.”
As a child, Kelis Rogers sang in the Girls Choir of Harlem and occasionally performed with her late father, a black jazz musician. Her mother, who is of Puerto Rican and Chinese descent, worked in fashion. She has three sisters: The eldest is a psychotherapist; the others are in graduate and veterinary school. “My mom was concerned that us four little black girls have a really well-balanced life,” she says. “She wanted us to be around people like us, but we also went to private school and traveled all the time. Now I fit in most places because I’ve been most places.”
Kelis was rebellious, her mom was strict and feisty, and they fought all the time. She left home but thrived at LaGuardia. “That school was competitive as hell,” she says. “It gave you a sense of what the industry is really like.” She formed an R&B trio called BLU and soon signed a deal with the production duo the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo). The future superstars helmed her 1999 solo debut, Kaleidoscope (Virgin), a quirky mix of soul, rap beats, and bad-ass rock spirit. Kelis sported a huge mane of hot-pink hair and covered Nirvana live. She was a sensation in the U.K., but the album, which defies American radio formats, tanked here and Virgin dropped her.
It took a more conventional, sexed-up hip-hop track—the spare, jump-rope funk of “Milkshake” (from 2003’s Tasty)—to resurrect her U.S. career. In the cartoonish video, which is set in a diner, Kelis vibrates her breasts, suggestively sips a plastic straw, and even bakes a butt-shaped bun. Drag queens took notice.
“I’ve seen lots of lip-synching to ‘Milkshake’ in clubs,” says Justin Bond of cabaret duo Kiki & Herb. “‘Milkshake’ is a big wink about the way you can reclaim your sexuality—it’s about making the person who’s objectifying you the weaker one.”
Kelis says would-be impersonators can even buy “Kelis” wigs up on 125th Street. “All my friends are gay guys. They’re always like, ‘You’re such a drag queen.’ I’m five ten, I wear tight clothes, and I sing.”
“People say, ‘You’re a strong female, so why are you wearing a bikini on the cover of that magazine?’ ”
Kelis met Nas in 2002, at a party hosted by P. Diddy; they married three years later. While Jay-Z and Beyoncé are hip-hop’s power couple, Nas and Kelis are its boho intellectuals. They divide their time between New York, Miami, L.A., and Atlanta, where they own a house in the country, complete with rampaging deer. “We’re both interested in really different things, and we met halfway,” says Kelis. “I like science fiction and he’s a biography guy. I like foreign films and he likes old movies.”
And they both enjoy serenading each other with dirty lyrics. On the new song “What’s That Right There,” Kelis says: “You likes it raw, I likes it on top / I got something for that lollipop.” The graphic rap chant “Blindfold Me” is an obvious attempt to score another “Milkshake,” though it’s far less catchy and witty. Kelis and the Neptunes parted ways after Tasty; she has dissed them in interviews, concerned that people assume she is a Svengali creation. But she seems unsure of her musical direction on the oft-delayed Kelis Was Here, which was produced by heavyweights like Scott Storch, Raphael Saadiq, and will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. The songs skitter from retro soul to Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam–style eighties pop to a New Wave kiss-off called “I Don’t Think So.” And she has tempered the bratty attitude with some love songs about her husband.
Nas ended a nasty, long-running feud with Jay-Z in October. In late 2006, he’s scheduled to release a hotly anticipated comeback album on Island Def Jam, which is run by Jay-Z. But Nas still has beef with other rappers, including 50 Cent, who mocked him for that nude wifey tattoo. And Kelis is obviously not the kind of woman to suffer mutely by her man’s side (see the album’s hidden track, “Fuck Them Bitches”).
“Everyone’s always trying to take cheap shots,” she complains. “But I’m not afraid. I’m not going to cower away because someone is bigger. I’m going to be like a BB gun that may not kill you but will really irritate you.”