Spin Control


August 27, 2006



Kelis, "Kelis Was Here" (La Face/Sony BMG) ***

"There is nothing special about me, I am just a little star," 26-year-old Kelis Rogers sings in "Li'l Star," midway through her fourth album. A few bars later, Cee-Lo Green, a k a the voice of Gnarls Barkley and one of several guests here, chimes in with, "Just keep trying and trying ... You sure look like a star to me." And that has pretty much been the story of Kelis' career.

The singer's 1999 debut, "Kaleidoscope," was a huge hit in Europe, but her second album, 2001's "Wanderland," wasn't even released in the States. She finally made her big breakthrough with 2003's "Tasty," courtesy of the smash club hit "Milkshake," but then she ended her fruitful partnership with production team the Neptunes, claiming she didn't want to be anyone's puppet. Now Kelis is married to rapper Nas, born again and under considerable pressure to prove herself as her own woman. And she doesn't disappoint.

The album isn't without its flaws: At 18 songs plus a hidden bonus track ("F--- Them B----es," apparently included by the label over her objections), "Kelis Was Here" is too long at least by a third, and with a bevy of A-list producers (including Scott Storch, will.i.am, Raphael Saadiq, Linda Perry and Max Martin), the music is correspondingly schizophrenic and unfocused. But that's also part of the disc's charm: This sassy but sexy feminist refuses to be neatly pigeonholed. She's game to try anything -- from the smoky R&B crooning on "Appreciate Me" and "Li'l Star," to the Space Age bossa nova of ""Have a Nice Day," to the "Milkshake"-inspired, bratty playground rhyming of gonzo hip-pop tracks such as "Bossy" (a self-empowerment anthem), "I Don't Think So" (her response to guys who want to get in her pants, as well as to people who want her to "be nice") and "Like You" (a sexy come-on scored to a sample of a Mozart aria) -- and she succeeds more often than not.

The Roots, "Game Theory" (Def Jam) ***1/2

Both the grooviest live band in hip-hop and its greatest backing group -- critical consensus is divided between comparisons to the Grateful Dead and analogies with the Band -- Philadelphia's Roots seemed to be losing the plot on their last album, "The Tipping Point" (2004), which marked a surprising drop in quality from "Phrenology" (2002), itself a bit of a disappointment after 1999's masterful "Things Fall Apart." Maybe the musicians, especially drummer and producer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, were too distracted by their myriad side projects for quality control with the Roots, or so the thinking went. But on their seventh album, their first release for a new label now run by previous skeptic Jay-Z, the Roots are back in top form, with a dense, dark and foreboding 47-minute, 13-song suite that comes on like a modern version of another epic of urban paranoia and political turmoil: Sly Stone's "There's a Riot Goin' On."

The political edge in the lyrics of primary rapper Tarik "Black Thought" Trotter is hardly new for this band, but he seems angrier and more inspired than ever -- "Yo, I'm like Malcolm [X]/Out the window with the weapon," he raps in "Clock With No Hands" -- while railing at the evils of "False Media," chiding his hip-hop brethren for being too distracted by bling to speak the truth ("Don't Feel Right") and continually questioning the racial inequities of the war on terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina.

The Roots' strength will always be the musical backings, though, and Thompson continues to be one of the most subtle but brilliant drummers in popular music, driving tracks that feature some of the collective's best guitars and keyboards ever, as well as its most inspired samples, ranging from a snippet of Radiohead in "Atonement" to a classic bite from Kool & the Gang in "Don't Feel Right." The only misstep is the long and melodramatic closing track, "Can't Stop This," which follows Christina Aguilera's "Thank You (Dedication to Fans ...)" in employing the cheesy gambit of sampled voice-mail messages to pay tribute to the Roots' late friend, producer J Dilla.