When you think of 90’s Rhythm and Blues the word ‘Classics’ immediately springs to mind. The rebellious nature of the genre as it was then, coupled with the dawn of the superstar Hip Hop/R’n’B get-together, saw a mainstream adolescent become a fully fledged icon creating adult. Mary J Blige, Jodeci, Mariah Carey, D’Angelo, R. Kelly (!?!), 112, Keith Sweat, Lauryn Hill. I could obviously go on but Listen again to Kelis’ wonderfully executed, and at that time totally against the grain Kaleidoscope and then remember that it was released in the same year that Sisqo Unleashed his Dragon (pardon the pun), TLC were refusing to be scrubbed and Destiny’s Child were Writing on Walls.
I (like a few of you I’m sure) balked when I first heard the screams of the seminal single Caught Out There. Emotion has always been the most obvious way to connect with any listener but to lay it on as blatantly as that was definitely not the norm. The calm and calculated rationale of the verses spiked with the explosive ‘get the f@€k out of here’ hook are brilliantly structured but we were too busy either copying (ladies) or mocking (gents) the hook to take any real notice of its significance because until that point hooks followed (and to an extent still follow) a tried and trusted formula.
The Neptunes already had the charts on lockdown by 1999 yet they still managed to push their self made boundaries to new places with an artist that also happened to be just as forward thinking. She would have had to have been a very willing part of the equation as for the whole album to work she would have to sound supremely comfortable riding the new and unusual soundscapes.
And what soundscapes they were when compared to almost everything else that was around at the time. The antithesis of the soulful samples that were the staple diet of many a beatsmith, the programmable synth got a fairly easy ride as most of what Kaleidoscope had on show was not overly layered. Like I recently said of Pharrell’s G I R L, the sparseness of The Neptunes production is their strength. That and the insane drum patterns and sounds that they created meant that during that period they had only one challenger for the throne.
The album seemed to be a statement of intent for the Neptunes as well as a personal highlight for Kelis. She approaches the duopoly perfectly and the playful way she handles the songs should be applauded. The children’s TV friendly chords and sporadic drums of Game Show perfectly point to a place where many a producer feared to tread and Kelis simply joins in the fun where many would try to counter that effect. Even the more evenly keeled of Pharrell and Chad’s Kaleidoscopic creations were varying degrees of outlandish, futuristic takes on conventional ideas and I can’t think of many top US vocalists who would have wholeheartedly embraced the concept at that time.
Unsurprisingly Kaleidoscope went over a lot of heads (especially in the US) and seemed to make the biggest impact on UK shores, going gold and garnering one top ten and one top forty single. Our collective love of EDM (see: Hardcore, Garage, 2 Step and Drum & Bass) before it became a fashion accessory means that it has always been easier for us to digest music that our stateside cousins find too spicy for their stunted palettes.
I suspect that Kelis, when compared to her peers of the time, although possessing curves for days and being sexy as hell, was a little unorthodox for buying public, which counted against her initially. The alternative album cover, the posing naked on a horse on the album insert and the uncompromising flame coloured hair all contributed towards an eccentric image. The non conforming nature of the music meant that in the eyes of the masses she was being compared to the Britney’s (Spears) and Cristina’s (Aguilera) of this world. And in 1999 that was never really a contest to begin with.
If I factor in Pharrell’s ascension to superstardom, it’s clear that Kaleidoscope is an album that arrived at a time when the jump from Hip Hop R’n’B to its alternative cousin was simply too much too soon. The genre bending and electro sounds that are regularly topping the charts today proves that had it been released now, Kaleidoscope would have made much bigger waves critically and commercially, making a household name of its leading light in Tue process.