Album review: Kelis - Wanderland

Album Review: Kelis - Wanderland | Random J Pop

I really felt sorry for Kelis when her second studio album Wanderland released, because I knew it was going to fade into complete obscurity. The lead single was too weird for radio, and pretty much anybody at that point. And the album dropped mere weeks before Michael Jackson’s long-awaited album Invincible. Only YEARS later would I go on to discover that this album didn’t even release in the US. A real shame, because Wanderland was a good album from a pop star who was always light years ahead.

Kelis isn’t given credit for a lot of things she’s done in music over the course of her career as an artist before she decided to pack it up, buy a farm and become a full-time cook. But one thing she isn’t given enough credit for is helping popularise The Neptunes. Many will say The Neptunes made Kelis, but I’d make an argument for the former. The Neptunes weren’t widely known for doing R&B until 2002 when they cut songs for pop stars such as Usher and Justin Timberlake. But R&B heads knew The Neptunes were delivering R&B heat via their work with Kelis prior - which offered this whole new take on the fusion of Hip Hop & R&B which didn't involve sampling. The unfortunate thing for Kelis is that her lead singles always felt a little too left field between The Neptunes’ production and the general approach taken with the songwriting. “Caught Out There” just became known as the song with that crazy bitch screaming ‘I Hate You So Much Right Now’, which is what so many people referred to the song as, that in certain countries the single cover had it printed as the song title. Then “Young, Fresh ‘N’ New” came along and it was just wholly ignored despite being what it said it was. Young, fresh and new.

Album Review: Kelis - Wanderland | Random J Pop

“Young, Fresh ‘N’ New” was a strange choice of single to kick start Kelis’ second album with. It’s a strange choice for any artist to go with at any time. But it spoke to Kelis’ fearlessness when it came to music and pretty much everything; which is what made it so perfect. And whilst many dismissed it because of how weird, radio unfriendly and different it was at the time - these were all of the reasons that I gravitated towards it. It was a zag at a time that everybody was zigging. Whilst other artists were all trying to do glossy R&B and pop fusions, or release songs that sounded how everybody figured the 2000s would sound (R2-D2, a modem and a drum machine), Kelis said ‘Fuck it’ and released a song that was more pop than R&B and had this whole rock thing going on. Who else had the audacity!? And the wildest thing is, there are so many other songs on Wanderland which would have been safer single choices and could’ve been hits, such as “Flash Back”. But nope. We got “Young, Fresh ‘N’ New”.

“Young, Fresh ‘N’ New” was an outlier in pop at the time of its release, but it’s also an outlier on Wanderland, because there’s no other song like it on the album. Yet it sets the tone for the entire album. But most importantly, “Young, Fresh ‘N’ New” feels like the perfect representation of Kelis, placing her front and centre in ways she wasn’t on “Caught Out There” and “Good Stuff”. Kelis showed so much growth from her debut album Kaleidoscope. As cool an album as it was, there was no sense of who Kelis was. Where as comparatively, Kelis puts her entire foot in Wanderland; and as a result its full of quirk and character. In many ways Wanderland feels like the true arrival of Kelis, which is what makes it all the more sad that the world never got it.

Despite “Young, Fresh ‘N’ New”, Wanderland is an R&B album, but not in the traditional sense. The production coming courtesy of The Neptunes causes lines to blur constantly between R&B, Hip Hop, funk, disco and pop, to a point where trying to file the songs can be difficult. A song like “Easy Come, Easy Go” could be R&B, but it could be Hip-Hop, or it could be pop. In fact, about a third of this album could probably be filed under pop, but will get filed under R&B or Hip Hop because Kelis is Black and a couple of the songs have rappers. But if Britney were singing these songs, they’d be flung under pop so fast that her extension tracks would tear out of her scalp.

Album Review: Kelis - Wanderland | Random J Pop

Wanderland, true to its title, is a journey into a world that feels familiar, but twisted in one way or another. The best way to describe Wanderland is that it feels like a sketch show. Or a Tumblr page. I mean, shit. There’s even a song called “Digital World” about sitting online being depressed as all hell. Each song on Wanderland sounds different from the last, feels tonally different from the last, and has a completely different story to the last. You’re just rolling from one scenario / sketch on to the next. But each song has a sticking quality in that they each touch on something that we’re either familiar with, have had proximity to, or have an awareness of - no matter how wild the songs get. “Daddy” is not a loving Father’s day serenade. It is a song about a girl who has a sugar daddy. A concept which isn’t new, but a term which has been greatly popularised over the past decade. “Young, Fresh ‘N’ New” is about feeling so stifled by your own life that you wanna run away from it. “Mr. U.F.O. Man” is about realising Jesus ain’t tryna come back again, so choosing to pray to an alien instead to come fix this mess of a world that has folk out here shooting innocent people and warring for no reason. “Little Suzie” is a song about the stupid shit that we do, all the while knowing it’s stupid, and urging kids to allow themselves to be kids and not take on what should be the work of adults. Bitch. Kelis was living in today back in 2001.

The connective thread through the album, which also ties in with the album title and the famed story of Alice, is the perspective from which the songs are sung. For the most part these songs feel like they're being sung from the perspective of Kelis as a teenage girl. There's a teenage angst which comes through in the songs, which is visually present in the music video for "Young, Fresh 'N' New". And songs such as "Flash Back", "Daddy" and "Scared Money" have lines which allude to them being accounts from a Kelis of the past, not the albums' present - further giving the feeling of the whole album being like a sketch show.

As fun as the Wanderland ride is, it does lull towards the end and lose a whole lot of steam, which is partly a result of excess. Cutting at least 4 of the songs would have done the album considerable service and kept the ride short ‘n’ sweet. There’s only one song on the album that I think is straight up trash though, and that’s the cover of Phil Collins “I Don’t Care Any More”. Ain’t nobody try’na hear somebody cover a Phil Collins song over a reworked version of Noreaga’s “Superthug”, which I realise sounds not half bad on paper. But trust me. In actuality, it’s trash. The others songs I’d cut are just because they either don't add anything or are repetitious. The album intro and the hidden bonus track “Star Wars” are basically Spotify free ads promoting The Neptunes and their Star Trak record label. It’s a little shameless and wholly unnecessary. Both songs are also the same. “Star Wars” is just a longer version of the album intro. The beat slaps and Kelis’ announcer voice is great, but nothing about this song is about Kelis. But if you play it on Spotify, the progress bar turns into a lightsaber. The story behind “Perfect Day” interests me more than the song itself, as it’s written by No Doubt and the band play on it. A Neptunes track for No Doubt that went unused? Who knows. It’s a good song. Kelis and rock work really well. But it’s such a vanilla take on rock for Kelis after hearing “Young, Fresh ‘N New”, and it doesn't sound like a song that ever had her in mind. It just flat out sounds like a No Doubt song. “Get Even” is just a weaker version of “Caught Out There”. I get why there is a song like this on the album. But so much of Wanderland is a departure from Kaleidoscope and a venture into new territory, that it feels reductive. Especially as the song is nowhere near as good as the originator. “Little Suzie”, whilst cute, is not a good song structurally. It’s too repetitive, unmemorable and sounds like music you’d hear in a videogame whilst you’re waiting in a lobby for an online match or looking at a results screen.

Whilst many would revere the working relationship that The Neptunes fostered with Justin Timberlake, Clipse, Beyoncé and even Britney Spears due to the success of the songs Pharrell and Chad had cut for them - the artist whom I felt The Neptunes were a dream team with is Kelis. I completely got why after Wanderland Kelis chose to work with other producers, and it was a necessary move for her to make. But every time I listen to this album I think to myself ‘Shit. I wish they all woulda done another album together’. Even now this thought still crosses my mind, even though I know it won’t happen after the way Kelis dragged The Neptunes over her scam record deal. Also, The Neptunes are in a funk at the moment, where their hit to shit ratio is way off.

Album Review: Kelis - Wanderland | Random J Pop

Looking back on Wanderland really makes me see things in a wholly different light. Back then I just figured the album was a product of not being promoted because nothing Kelis had released prior had really caught on, and “Young, Fresh ‘N’ New” did absolutely nothing commercially. But now I can’t help but wonder if Kelis was the victim of racial typecasting. It’s been widely reported that Virgin Records gave up on Wanderland because they heard it and said ‘wE dOn’T gEt iT’, which is absolute bullshit. Wanderland was a highly marketable album and Kelis was a marketable artist. What was more than likely the case, was that Kelis didn’t fit into the box that Virgin Records felt Black women should. Kelis’ hair was too wild. It was too colourful. She wasn’t fashionable enough. She wore Chuck Taylors and was too punk. Kelis didn’t fit into the box that Black women had been up until that point. Yet somebody like P!nk can come along and do all the things Kelis did, look all the ways Kelis did, and it’s widely accepted, record labels go with it, and look at where P!nk’s career is now. Kelis didn’t fit a mould and Wanderland did fall neat enough into a category. That’s what made her and this album a breath of fresh air in a market which was saturated by everybody clawing at the same thing. And yet a record label decided to shit on Kelis and her album, because neither fit their ideal of how a Black woman should look and sound, even though they were given something that could help blaze a trail and cut through the noise. As Black woman do.

Album Review: Kelis - Wanderland | Random J Pop

It’s a real shame that the initial Europe only release of Wanderland not only made it the lost album that many probably had no idea existed, but that it got treated like scrap, with parts getting pieced off into other releases. “Flash Back” got carried over to the Wanderland follow-up Tasty (for the record, “Milkshake” woulda fit Wanderland far better than Tasty), whilst “Popular Thug” went on to feature on The Neptunes’ album Clones, albeit with revised production and Pusha T being replaced with Nas, rendering the song a weaker version of its former self. Even The Neptunes didn’t respect Wanderland.

Back when I first listened to this album I was completely enamoured, and always felt that this was the sound of tomorrow and the future. And now in what is the future, artists have only recently started to give what Kelis already done gave back when most of them were still in pampers. Even now The Neptunes can’t even catch up to or recapture what they did on this album.

Wanderland feels as fresh now as it did the day it released. And if you've not taken a trip there yet, then bitch - dive right on in.

VERDICT: Run away from home

■ Young, Fresh 'N' New 🔥
■ Flash Back 🏆
■ Popular Thug
■ Scared Money 🔥
■ The hidden track at the 4:48 mark of “Shooting Stars” 🔥
■ Digital World
■ Easy Come, Easy Go 🔥
■ Junkie 🔥