Kelis’s Comeback Rolls Through SXSW in a Food Truck

AUSTIN, TX: Kelis’s duck confit sliders bring all the boys to the yard.

No, really.

Down at South By Southwest, attendees often are reintroduced to familiar faces angling to mount big comebacks and reinventions. Sometimes it doesn’t work — typically because the shows aren’t high-profile enough or the stunts aren’t clever enough to break through the SXSW clutter — but there have been varying degrees of success in recent years, Fiona Apple in 2013 and Devo in 2009 being the gold standards.

Although ’80s new-wavers Spandau Ballet were angling to be the comeback kids this year with their first U.S. shows in 30 years, attention must be paid to Kelis’s food-themed efforts. Rarely do SXSW publicity stunts feel as natural as this: a forthcoming album titled Food, a single called “Jerk Ribs,” and a new Cooking Channel show, all promoted via food truck. Thursday and Friday afternoon, a truck emblazoned with Kelis’s face rode around Austin giving out free gourmet eats, with the R&B singer tweeting the vehicle’s location and often serving up the food herself. The menu included jerk-BBQ goat ribs, in addition to duck confit sliders with a ginger sesame glaze, shredded beef sliders with a cherry BBQ sauce, and coleslaw with golden raisins and slivered almonds.

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I sampled all but the duck confit sliders on Friday around lunchtime, when the park was parked outside Fader Fort on the east side of Austin. The meat was tender, the portions were generous, and above all, the BBQ sauces were both well-done (sweet but not overly so, heavy on the heart.) The jerk ribs seemed to be the same recipe from the debut episode of Saucy & Sweet, Kelis’s charming Cooking Channel show, and the coleslaw was so crisp and refreshing, I hope she features it on her show at some point. Overall, organic synergy amidst aggressive branding — and the best free meal at SXSW I’ve ever had.

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As for her new songs, many of which have soul food-related names (“Cobbler,” “Fish Fry,” “Biscuits ‘n’ Gravy”), Kelis previewed the brass-tinged tunes at a small handful of notable shows throughout the week. The most high-profile of these gigs was a mid-evening set on Wednesday (March 12) at the NPR Music show at Stubb’s, one of the festival’s most consistent and well-attended showcases. Essentially opening for St. Vincent and Damon Albarn, Kelis debuted a sound far more rooted in classic soul and Motown than the hip-hop scene she came up in alongside now ex-husband Nas. The shift is marked by a team-up with TV on the Radio member/indie rock producer Dave Sitek, whose brought out the best in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and his own band, and will release Kelis’s Food on his Federal Prism label come April 22. The new songs have an indie edge to them, with deep references to the past; like a slightly more experimental Sharon Jones.

Throughout the aforementioned NPR set (which you can listen to in full), Kelis and her back-up singers re-imagined her career highlights, including 2003 mega-hit “Milkshake,” as numbers that were funky and at times, with a slight Latin flare. She also reprised Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” three separate times, emphasizing the classic song’s signature line, “It’s a new day.” “They’re trying to kick me out but I’m still here,” she said, referencing that specific show and the music world at large. 

Kelis hasn’t exactly been hiding in the years following “Milkshake,” but in the subsequent albums following mainstream breakout Tasty, she’s tried on various genres ranging from rap to pop to most distinctly, Daft Punk-esque, David Guetta-produced electronica on her most recent (and extremely underrated) release, 2010’s Flesh Tone. At her core, Kelis is an R&B artist with an edge, not singing the usual ballads of scorned love and deepening her smoky vocals over the years. Looking to the female vocalists who first made the genre great will be, I expect, a nice fit for Kelis.