Features

'Shake it Up

The brassy belter behind winter's raciest smash is a closet foreign-film geek? R&B singer KELIS is full of surprises (and -- burp -- icecream).

Despite the frigid winds gusting outside, Kelis is drinking a frosty mint-chip milkshake. It's not her first of the day. In fact, the R&B singer estimates it's her third or fourth. ''I am sick to death of them,'' she says, looking down at the creamy green substance with disgust at the Manhattan sweetshop Dylan's Candy Bar.

No, she's not lactose intolerant. It's just that Kelis has become, as she puts it, ''the milkshake girl'' ever since ''Milkshake,'' her sexy ode to jiggling mammaries, became the season's fail-safe party starter (it's currently No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it was just nominated for a Best Urban/Alternative Performance Grammy). This is good for Kelis, of course, but it also means that everywhere she goes -- photo shoots, radio promotions, magazine interviews -- frozen beverages are procured on her behalf. After a few sips of the frothy drink, she pawns it off on a hungry assistant. ''Really, trust me,'' she says drily. ''You can have it. Please.''

Kelis, 24, might be sick of shakes, but the ice-cold funk of ''Milkshake'' has primed palates for her stunning new CD, Tasty. It's the frizzy-haired singer's first U.S. release since her 1999 debut, Kaleidoscope, a blast of punky R&B-grrrl energy that spawned a hit single and helped launch the careers of the album's producers, Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, a.k.a. the Neptunes. But though she was widely considered one of R&B's most promising talents, the eclectic soul diva was mysteriously dropped from her label just before the U.S. release of her second CD. Kelis' once-high profile soon faded.

It was a strange twist in a career that had otherwise seemed charmed. Kelis (pronounced kuh-LEECE) Rogers enjoyed a childhood straight out of Fame. Raised in Harlem, she moved into her own apartment at 16 and was being courted by labels even before her 1997 graduation from La Guardia High School (the actual school on which Fame was based, natch). ''I've always been a musician,'' she says. ''I played violin for 14 years. I didn't want to work a 9-to-5 job, so I was like, 'What can I do? Well, I guess I should do what I've been doing all my life and just get paid for it.'''

During her senior year, she signed a production deal with a then-up-and-coming Virginia duo called the Neptunes, who helmed Kaleidoscope and brought it to Virgin Records. That album's breakout single, ''Caught Out There'' (better known as the I-Hate-You-So-Much-Right-Now song), featured Kelis screaming about a lying ex over a beat that stomped like a funky jackhammer. ''I don't deal well with authority, and I don't like being predictable,'' she says. ''But when 'Caught Out There' came out, a lot of people thought I was this psychotic f -- -ing feminist, which I'm not. On the other hand, it was a great way to get noticed.''

That confrontational attitude might help explain what happened next. Kaleidoscope sold decently, but in 2001, when it came time to release the follow-up, Wanderland, Virgin balked. ''Essentially, I hated Virgin and I wanted to get off the label at all costs,'' she says. A Virgin executive attributes the split to Wanderland's poor overseas performance and Kelis' refusal to record new material for the U.S. release. Virgin's trepidation is understandable; the album has an uneven and downbeat vibe -- likely influenced by Kelis' rumored romance with Pharrell Williams, which was reportedly falling apart during the recording sessions.

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