"I don't deal well with authority, and I don't like being predictable," Kelis told Entertainment Weekly in December of 2003. So far the bold singer has remained a woman of her word—churning out one sexy, catchy and traffic-stopping hit after another—and doing it her way. But whether it's her untamed locks, suggestive lyrics, or her hybrid musical style, there's one thing Kelis was determined to do from the beginning: get people's attention.
Born on August 21, 1980, in Harlem, New York's epicenter for jazz and the arts, Kelis (pronounced Kuhleese) Rogers had an early interest in music, thanks to encouragement from both parents. From the age of four, Kelis was performing in nightclubs across the country with her jazz saxophonist father, Kenneth G. Rogers, who played with artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Nancy Wilson. At her mother's urging, Kelis began studying classical violin at age two (she continued her studies for 14 years) and picked up the saxophone as a teenager. She also followed in her three older sister's footsteps and sang with the Girls Choir of Harlem. Her signature fashion style developed out of the colorful, custom-made outfits her designer mother sewed for the Rogers girls to wear to school.
At the age of 14 Kelis enrolled in LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts, where she studied drama and theater. There she formed an R&B trio called BLU (Black Ladies United), which caught the attention of hip-hop producer Goldfinghaz, who introduced Kelis to the Wu Tang Clan's RZA. In 1997 she sang backup on "Fairytalz" for RZA's side project, Gravediggaz. At 16, by now arguing constantly with her parents, Kelis ventured out on her own. It was harder than she'd imagined. "Things weren't as easy as I thought they'd be," she told the New Zealand Herald in April of 2000. "It was a real struggle at first and I was far too busy trying to figure out how to feed myself to even think about music." To make ends meet, she tended bar and worked in clothing stores. "I didn't want to work a 9-to-5 job," Kelis told Entertainment Weekly. "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." Her hard work paid paid off, however, and in 1998, she signed a recording deal with Virgin Records.
After high school, Kelis beefed up her resume, working with a throng of A-list rappers and R&B artists. In 1999 she made a cameo on Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money." In 2001 she sang the hook on Busta Rhymes's "What It Is" and appeared on R&B singer Usher's album 8701. It was during this time that she became friends with an artist who would prove profitable to both her career and her personal life: Pharrell Williams, half of the Grammy-winning production team, the Neptunes. Williams not only wrote and produced Kelis's debut album, Kaleidoscope, but introduced her to rapper Nas, to whom she became engaged in 2003.
Kelis made jaws drop in 1999 with "Caught Out There," the catchy, brazen single produced and written by the Neptunes from her debut album. In it she berates a cheating boyfriend, screaming, "I hate you so much right now!" Kelis was unfazed by possible repercussions or negative interpretations of the song. "I'm not a man-hater. Just because I'm singing about one man's infidelity, it doesn't mean I hate all men," Kelis told the New Zealand Herald.
Kaleidoscope generated three top 40 hits: "Caught Out There," "Good Stuff," and "Get Along With You." Kelis, who named the album for her constantly changing life and musical styles, appeared on the album cover wearing only body paint, with her wild locks tinted vibrant colors. While headlining her own 25-city tour to support the album in 2000, she showcased its fusion of soul, rock, R&B and hip-hop, covering Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and Lionel Richie's "Hello," which was accompanied only by a piano. The following year was even busier. Kelis opened for Lenny Kravitz and Britney Spears, appeared on Moby's Area One Tour, and supported U2 on the European leg of their Elevation Tour.
Kelis's relationship with Virgin Records soon turned sour—they claimed that after the album's poor overseas sales she refused to record new material for an American release. As a result, the company never released her sophomore effort, Wanderland, in the United States. The album featured a duet with No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani and rock group Korn's Fieldy on bass. But the song "Popular Thug" was salvaged and rerecorded for the Neptunes' 2003 project, a compilation titled The Neptunes Present … Clones.
After splitting from Virgin, Kelis immediately went to work on songs for her next release, fronting most of the money for studio time herself. With the Neptunes' help, she signed with Arista Records under their Star Trak imprint. With production help from Andre 3000, Raphael Shadiq, and the Neptunes, she released Tasty in 2003. The album spawned a huge hit single for Kelis, "Milkshake," which went to number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Kelis told the Ottawa Citizen in January of 2004, "A milkshake is the thing that makes women feel special. It's what gives us our confidence and what makes us exciting." She explained to Entertainment Weekly in December of 2003 that "[the] song is fun and silly and not to be taken too seriously. But on the flip side, I can be as powerful, interesting, and smart as I wanna be and still be enticing and sexy."
The song's scintillating video (featuring a cameo by fiancé Nas) and suggestive lyrics made it a regular feature on MTV's TRL and earned Kelis an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Spurred by the single, Tasty hit number seven on the top R&B/Hip-Hop albums charts and went to 27 on the Billboard top 200 album charts. Fiancé Nas also sings a duet with her on the uber-sexy track, "In Public," in which Kelis playfully suggests they "make a video" together. That same year, Kelis sang on Enrique Iglesias' s "Not In Love" and starred in the video.
Sexy lyrics and PG-17 videos aside, Kelis tries to stay close to her roots. She has a tattoo on her wrist that says "God's musical messenger" in Latin. "Religion's an important part of my life," the sexy singer told the New Zealand Herald in April of 2000. "My dad used to be a minister so I was always at church when I was younger. I definitely see my voice as a gift from God." Still, Kelis has yet to relinquish herself of her desire to stir things up and turn heads. "People either hate me or love me. But I dig that because I provoke emotion—and that's great too," Kelis told Billboard in November of 2003.
For the Record …
Born Kelis Rogers (pronounced "Kuh-leese," a combination of her parents' names) on August 21, 1980, in Harlem, NY; daughter of Eveliss Rogers (a fashion designer) and Kenneth G. (a jazz saxophonist and Pentacostal minister). Education: Attended Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan, New York City.
Graduated from Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School for Music & and Performing Arts; worked as a bartender and clothing store employee, 1996; Formed R&B trio BLU (Black Ladies United), 1994-96; backup singer for Gravediggaz' recording Fairytalz, 1997; signed with Virgin Records, 1998; released debut album, Kaleidoscope, on Virgin, 1999; released sophomore effort, Wanderland, 2001; left Virgin and signed to Arista's imprint Star Trak, 2001; released third album, Tasty on Arista, serving as executive producer, 2003.
Awards: NME Awards: Best R&B Singer, 2001; Q magazine Awards: Best Video ("Caught out There"), 2003.
Kaleidoscope, Virgin, 1999.
Wanderland, Virgin, 2001.
Tasty, Arista, 2003.
Billboard, November 13, 1999.
Boston Herald, April 14, 2000.
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), January 16, 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, December 19, 2003.
Guardian (London, England), June 24, 2000.
Houston Chronicle, August 7, 2001.
Independent (London, England), October 19, 2001.
Jet, January 12, 2004.
New York Daily News, February 2, 2004.
New York Times, August 19, 2001.
New Zealand Herald, April 1, 2000.
Newsday, April 20, 2000.
Ottawa Citizen, January 3, 2004.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 2000.
Sunday Times (London, England), March 5, 2000.
"Kelis," RollingStone.com, http://rollingstone.com/artists/bio.asp?oid01699621 (March 2, 2004).
"Kelis: For the Record—Quick News on Kelis, Turk, Fred Durst, Mos Def, Elivs Costello, Coolio, Dandly Warhols & More," MTV, http://mtv.com/news/articles/1484723/01302004/kelis.jhtml (March 3, 2004).
"Kelis: Kelis Turning Heads Again with Her Tasty Milkshake," MTV, http://mtv.com/news/articles/1479616/10072003/kelis.jhtml (March 12, 2004).
—Kerry L. Smith
Kelis enjoyed a rush of popularity with the success of her 2003 hit "Milkshake." A songwriter who asserted control over her career, Kelis had been recording her material—featuring a strong female perspective—since 1999. Despite the pop phenomenon of "Milkshake," Kelis remained a singular artist and did not sacrifice her artistic vision to churn out music. Yet even with gaps between releases, Kelis could grab listeners' attention, and she has attracted the services of some of the top producers in urban contemporary music. Kelis's 2006 album, Kelis Was Here, and its leadoff single, "Bossy," suggested that she had more brash and confident music on the way.
Born Kelis (kuh-LEESE) Rogers in New York on August 21, 1979, the singer grew up as the youngest of four sisters in the Harlem neighborhood on Manhattan Island. Her three sisters all became physicians. Her African-American father, Kenneth G. Rogers, was a veteran jazz musician; her mother Eveliss, who is of Puerto Rican and Chinese background, worked in the fashion industry. Kelis's parents were supportive of the interest in music she showed as early as age two. She began studying the violin, continuing for 14 years, and soon she was singing in the choir of the family's Pentecostal church, where her father sometimes preached. Eveliss Rogers, who hand-made unique, colorful outfits for her daughters, also influenced Kelis, who would be known for daring, arresting outfits and hair styles.
Attended "Fame" High School
When she was 14, Kelis was admitted to New York's Fiorello LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts—a prestigious magnet school that served as the model for the institution depicted in the movie Fame. She learned to play the saxophone and won a spot in the Girls Choir of Harlem. R&B and hip-hop talent spotters were already paying attention to Kelis while she was still in high school, especially after she and two friends formed a group called BLU (Black Ladies United). The creative teenager was restless at home, however, and when she was 16 she moved out and got her own apartment.
Faced with the necessity of making a living, Kelis took a variety of jobs and had little time to think about music. After she graduated from high school in 1997, how-ever, she landed a backup vocal slot on a single called "Fairytalz" released by former Wu Tang Clan member RZA (under the name Gravediggaz). Her name spread among New York industry people, and she began working with the team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, known as the Neptunes. Kelis was signed to the Virgin label in 1998.
Kelis's debut album, Kaleidoscope, showing the singer with orange hair and covered in body paints, appeared in 1999 and took off with the release of the single "Caught Out There." The song depicted a woman who is angry after discovering her boyfriend's infidelity. "I hate you so much right now!" Kelis screams over a catchy Neptunes beat. The song was accompanied by a video in which Kelis beats up a man, threatens to cut off him off from life support in the emergency room of a hospital, and then leads a group of women in bathrobes in a nocturnal protest march as they intone the song's "I hate you" chorus. Directed by video creator Hype Williams, the video sprang from a concept envisioned by Kelis.
Found British Fan Base
Kelis denied that she personally was angry at men as a group or that she adhered to a strong feminist ideology, telling Julia Chaplin of Interview that "Everyone wants to kick a guy's ass and land 'em in the hospital once in a while." Indeed, other singles from Kaleidoscope that landed on the music charts had different themes, and Kelis's touring show included a variety of music that ranged from Lionel Richie's classic ballad "Hello" to Nirvana's alternative rock anthem "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Kelis toured not only in the United States but also in Britain, where she developed a strong following.
In 2001 Kelis's career hit a roadblock when the Virgin label refused to release her sophomore album, Wanderland, in the United States, blaming poor overseas sales. Noted Michael Endelman of Entertainment Weekly: "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." Despite a busy schedule of guest appearances on recordings and the tours of other artists—she had opening slots for the legendary rock band U2 and biracial rocker Lenny Kravitz—Kelis's career was in danger in the fast-moving world of urban music, where a lag of a few years might cause an artist to be nearly forgotten.
Things turned around for Kelis on the personal front in 2002, when she met rapper Nas (Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) at a party thrown by hip-hop kingpin Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. "He's the love of my life," Kelis told Matt Diehl of Interview. "We met, and I was just like, 'Hallelujah!' It was that sort of divine cliché moment: he shook my hand, and we've been together ever since." The two married in Atlanta in January of 2005 and made plans to record an album of old-school R&B together.
Paid for Own Studio Time
Kelis parted ways with Virgin and took advantage of her new creative freedom, booking studio time at her own expense to work on new material. A roster of A-list producers, including Andre 3000 of OutKast, Dallas Austin, and Raphael Saadiq, offered or volunteered their services. By the time she signed with the Arista label, Kelis had most of the album that would become Tasty finished. "I spent all this time with no one looking over my shoulder, no budget, no A&R nothing," she told Diehl. "It ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me." Asked by Associated Press reporter Colleen Long (as the interview appeared in the Ottawa Citizen) how she made contact with such a high-powered group of producers, Kelis answered, "It's like high school. Everyone knows everyone in music, people gossip all the time and everyone is in your business. It's like high school—with better outfits and longer days."
At a Glance …
Born Kelis Rogers August 21, 1979, in New York, NY; daughter of Kenneth G. (a jazz musician) and Eveliss (a fashion designer) Rogers; married Nas (Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, a rapper), 2005. Education: Fiorello LaGuardia High School for Music & Art and Performing Arts, 1997. Religion: Pentecostal.
Career: Singer and songwriter, 1997–.
Awards: Grammy award nomination, Best Urban/Alternative Performance, 2003, for "Milkshake".
Addresses: Label—Jive/Zomba Recordings, 137 W. 25th St., New York, NY 10001. Web—www.kelison-line.com.
The most commercially impressive result of Kelis's leisurely approach was "Milkshake." Composed and produced by the Neptunes (along with four other tracks on Tasty), it drew its appeal partly from the ambiguity of its lyrics. "A milkshake is the thing that makes women feel special," Kelis explained to Long. "It's what gives us our confidence and makes us exciting." But another interpretation could be gathered from Kelis's risqué performance of the song in concerts. Whatever the term's meaning, the song fit Kelis's assertive personality. The song reached the top five on several Billboard charts in 2004, and the Tasty album achieved gold status (for sales of 500,000 copies) in just two months in the United States. The album was also a major worldwide success.
Opening for Britney Spears on Spears's Onyx Hotel tour of 2004, Kelis once again took her time coming up with new material. The early months of her marriage to Nas gave her a well-deserved break at the beginning of 2005, and she began working on writing a cookbook and creating a fashion line. The new album, at first called The Puppeteer and then Kelis Was Here, was slated for release on the Jive label in June of 2006, but was pushed back to July and then August. A variety of producers, including Saadiq, Cee-Lo, and Scott Storch, again made contributions.
Despite the delay, Kelis, now sporting a new short haircut, was on the radio and in the news in July of 2006 with a rising single, "Bossy" (featuring rapper Too Short), and a tour that took her across the European continent. Her description of the single summed up her approach to her career. As she told Sia Michel of New York: "For me, saying 'I'm bossy' is a cute, tongue-in-cheek way of saying that I'm in control of my life." "She's a boss, no doubt, but I wouldn't say she's mean or rude," Kelis's colleague MC Too $hort told Michel. "Original is the word." And with the release of Kelis Was Here, it seemed that Kelis had just begun to introduce the world to her originality.
Kaleidoscope, Virgin, 1999.
Wanderland, Virgin, 2001.
Tasty, Arista, 2003.
Kelis Was Here, Jive, 2006.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 48, Gale, 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, December 19, 2003, p. 40.
Essence, July 2006, p. 69.
Evening Standard (London, England), August 27, 2004, p. 16.
In Style, April 2006, p. 354.
Interview, December 1999, p. 44; July 2004, p. 64.
Jet, January 31, 2005, p. 32.
Liverpool Echo (England), August 6, 2004, p. 1.
New York, August 28, 2006, p. 121.
Ottawa Citizen, January 3, 2004, p. I9.
"Kelis," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (July 24, 2006).