The Revisit: Kelis’ “Wanderland”

kelis-wanderland

“A funhouse.”

That is the first image that came to mind when I first heard the blaring car siren that opens Kelis’ Neptunes-produced masterpiece “Young, Fresh n’ New” back in the senior year of high school. I was preparing to lead my dance company, Grüvment (“groovement”), to a competition and needed something big, funky, and upbeat to help bring those trophies home.

This joint’s lushness inspired quirky choreography aplenty. It received the overdressed Janet-aspirant dancer treatment it deserved. Let’s just say that half-jackets, fishnet shirts, and bleached jeans were involved. (We got the trophies.)

The song—the most-played thing on my iPod for a solid year—arrived at a very pivotal moment in my love affair with dance, which ruled everything around me at the time. Choreographing was still new to me. I regularly described myself as “living my life in counts of eight,” and we danced in parking lots, living rooms talent shows, choir rooms, and anywhere with an audience.

This was late 2002 and I had recently become serious about putting my years of covert Tina Landon, Fatima Robinson, and Wade Robson discipleship to work as a nascent choreographer and future creative director/best friend of Saint Damita Jo Jackson, The First.

Eighteen was a beautiful time.

I happened upon “Young, Fresh n’ New” right as my campaign for independence began gaining momentum. I was brimming with a newly legal person’s boundless confidence; enamored with the choreographic brilliance of Gil Duldulao; and overjoyed about pushing myself further, physically and mentally, through movement. This song spoke to all of that exploration. It gave me wings.

“Young, Fresh n’ New” is immaculate. Kelis’ honeyed voice floating over this dizzying loop and swirling around these synths, clicks and claps presented me with me so much possibility as a dancer. Tina Landon The Great taught me to take any and all liberties when interpreting lyrics and aggrandize even the most negligible musical accents, to intertwine the intricate and staccato with the fluid and whimsical, just like Chad and Pharrell did with this song.

There was so much to work with. Its richness, housed in an inescapably funky galactic pinball groove, allowed me to stretch my legs a bit, creatively, and made me a lifelong Kelis fan. The resulting routine still stands as one of my proudest dance moments.

This song made falling in love with Wanderland easy. Her sophomore album, packed with capers of love, lust, and luchini-getting, was a constant source of inspiration back in those pre-Von Dutch days. At 21, Kelis simply wanted to do more musically, to improve upon what she set out to do with her debut. While interviewers and reviewers alluded to her wanting to be “different,” Kelis insisted, Denise Huxtably, that she merely wanted to be herself.

In this interview with Toazted, she declared, “I’m 21 years old. There’s no limit to what I can do.” That same mantra of unfuckwithableness guided me when I discovered this project. Obsession was inevitable.

I enjoyed Kaleidoscope, but I felt this project. Wanderland doesn’t purport to be a grand concept album. The formula was simple. There were Kelis’ vibrant vocals and there was the same infectious futuristic funk that kept The Neptunes in demand. The production was buoyant and these beats were danceable as fuck. It was the perfect soundtrack to my crew’s occasionally laughable quests for individuality, an obnoxious fingerless glove wearer’s personal score.

Among other things, she sang about dating Daddies (“Daddy”), cyberskeeting (“Digital World”), and being dickmatized (“Junkie”). Well, that pretty much summarizes my young adulthood. She was sultry. She had her Hot Topic-styled rock moment (“Perfect Day”). She had her Kidz Bop-friendly moment (“Little Suzie”).

This ambitious set—released exclusively in Europe, Asia, and Latin America— debuted in that time when The Neptunes produced damn near the entire radio. Their latest victory, Britney’s unfortunately titled “I’m A Slave 4 U,” had just hit the streets. They’d just made magic with Madame Latrelle. They were soaring. Sonically, their trademark fusion of soulful pop with futuristic hood eccentricities meshed perfectly with Kelis’ Chocolate Misfit Barbie steelo.

“Popular Thug” is another favorite. On the prequel to 2002’s “Grindin’,” Kelis weaves a tale of young, lusty naiveté around Pusha’s cocaine carols, and the drug game never sounded so sexy (beyond Curtis’ Superfly). This bustling duet with half of Virginia’s proudest dope boy duo is undeniably superior to the sugar-free update with then-husband Nas from The Neptunes Presents…Clones. I’m sure they meant well with that.

Another standout is “Scared Money,” which sounds like a magic carpet ride. “Flash Back” is light, fluffy and inspired by the Ghost of Boot-Knockings Past. And “Get Even,” brought to you by rage and vindication, goes out to your favorite double-crossing rat bastard. There is something for everyone.

This album didn’t receive the promotion or recognition it deserved, but time has been quite kind to Kelis. She went on to bigger hair and better deals and has enjoyed success across several genres. Her love of glorious grub has manifested itself in a wildly popular food truck at SXSW and a holiday cooking show on the Cooking Channel. And: she’s still superfine.

While promoting her sixth album, Food, Kelis aptly put her perceived commercial struggles into perspective:

“I’m sitting and talking with you 16 years later because [the momentum I built] was strong. It wasn’t really about what label got me or didn’t get me. I was making what I was making, and the people who were meant to hear it did.”

Moral of the story: Kelis won.

 

kelis-back-cover

This entry was posted in Art & Culture, Featured, What's Pop'n.