The intro to Kelis' sassy and seductive third album, "Tasty," starts in suitably savory fashion. "I'm gonna give you some things to taste and you tell me what you think, OK?" she says suggestively. A plastic wrapper of some kind bristles in the background, followed by some munching mumbles and a robotic male voice saying, "Mmmmm ..."
"Now I'm gonna give you something really good," she teases as the ska-kissed groove of the first track, "Trick Me," oozes in like warm syrup dripping down a stack of pancakes.
It's just the kind of sexy, sweet stuff that fans of the singer's Grammy-nominated single "Milkshake" might expect. By now everyone knows the synthy boombox-ready hit and its silly yet memorable chorus, "My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard / And they're like, 'It's better than yours' / ... Right, it's better than yours / I can teach you, but I have to charge."
Spending five weeks at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, the anthem, produced by reigning rhythm kings the Neptunes, is the dance-floor and radio jam du jour, and it's made Kelis (pronounced ka-LEECE) a star.
She plays a solo show Sunday night at the Roxy, a one-night detour from a 27-date, nationwide tour that began Tuesday in San Diego as the opening act for Britney Spears.
Kelis' come-hither ditty only hints at the singer's vocal skill, not to mention her range of sonic guises. In addition to the Neptunes, "Tasty" (which had sold 413,000 copies through last week) boasts writing and production work by OutKast's Andre 3000, Rockwilder and Raphael Saadiq.
" 'Tasty' is about different flavors," says Chad Hugo, one-half of the Neptunes. "The freedom of working with other producers on this album showed the many dimensions of Kelis."
Kelis ROGERS, 24, grew up in Harlem, the child of an African American minister and Puerto Rican and Chinese mother. "Since I was really little I listened to a lot of jazz and gospel," she recalls. "I really enjoyed singing in church choir."
But being the minister's daughter proved stifling for the rebellious young music lover. By the time she was 16 and majoring in theater at New York's La Guardia School for the Arts (of "Fame" fame), she was living on her own, working on her own music projects and singing backup for various rap groups.
Enter the Neptunes, Chad Hugo and Pharell Williams, who at that time were still up-and-coming beat busters looking for a muse. Kelis filled the bill and, soon after she graduated, the trio got to work in the studio, concocting some of the soulfully sublime sounds that would soon constitute her Virgin debut.
Released in 2000, "Kaleidoscope" was a slinky yet solid collection, but it may have been outshined by its tempestuous first single, "Caught Out There." The raging anthem, about a woman fed up with her lying man, boasted one of R&B's most confrontational choruses ever: Kelis' vitriolic scream, "I hate you so much right now!" The unbridled rant, and the accompanying Hype Willliams-directed video, which featured the singer marching down the street with a gang of angry women behind her, was hard to ignore.
"It wasn't a true story about anybody," she says almost defensively. "To a degree, every woman has been through something like that. I assumed that people would react to it whether they hated it or loved it."
Unfortunately, people didn't react as strongly to the rest of the record -- at least not in the U.S. In Europe, she became a bona fide pop sensation, scoring three top 40 hits and a handful of music awards, but stateside she seemed more of a one-hit wonder.
When it came time for her second effort, Wanderland, Virgin decided to release it in Europe and Asia, but not the U.S., a decision that ultimately made Kelis realize it was time to look for another label. "They didn't really know what to do with me," she says.
"She's unique," says Garth Trinidad, host of KCRW-FM's "Chocolate City." "She's got an arrogance and an attitude to her music, but she's sincere."
An early champion of the singer, Trinidad continues to spin remixes of her songs in the clubs. "R&B has become so formulaic," he explains.
"If you don't sound like everything else it's hard to be heard here in the U.S. In Europe they're more likely to throw in the unique with the familiar. They couldn't fit her in anywhere over here, but she knew she was different and worked it."
Work it she did. Before ultimately moving to Star Trak, an imprint of Arista records helmed by the Neptunes, she toured with the likes of U2 and Moby, and racked up an impressive list of collaborations with everyone from Busta Rhymes to Gwen Stefani to Ol' Dirty Bastard to the man who would become her fiance, rapper Nas.
Her hubby-to-be also can be heard on "In Public," "Tasty's" steamiest tune. But her latest effort isn't all freaky innuendo and funky filler -- the album displays a range that goes beyond the novelty of "Milkshake," recalling everyone from Anita Baker to Prince.
"I really just wanted to do something I hadn't done before," she says, downplaying the album's sensual undercurrents. "It's just about life, really. Sex is just a part of life. There are so many other things: love, happiness, disappointment, betrayal. It's all mixed in there."
Where: The Roxy, 9009 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
When: Sunday, 8 p.m.
Info: (310) 278-9457