Kelis – Kaleidoscope

Well, first of all, you should buy it because it’s got the first classic single of the 21st Century on it. “Caught Out There” is perfect – you can get off on the ebullient gimmickry of the hook, you can shake it to the juddering beats, you can thrill to Kelis’ splintered dialogue, or you can surrender to the computer-game production, that endless rain of falling laser bleeps which has been turning the radio into an arcade all year. “Caught Out There”‘s been painted as searingly angry, but it’s far too goofy for that. It’s also been dismissed as an R&B “You Oughtta Know”, which cuts a little deeper, but really Kelis’ hit stands in relation to Alanis’ as “White Lines” does to Clapton’s “Cocaine”.

Does Kaleidoscope offer anything else to cartwheel the charts so totally? No – how could it? – but the surprise is how close it comes and how far it wanders in the attempt. Kelis’ record takes a diversity-first approach – Afro-futurist bubblegum next to chocolate-box swing, floatation tank R&B versus Lauryn-a-like preachery, TLC girl-strut played off against fractured post-hop pop. This range isn’t down to the star so much as to her producers, the Neptunes. Kelis doesn’t hurt, of course – she’s got a smooth, mutable voice which adapts easily to anything the Neptunes throw at it – but for all her charisma this is only half her show. The Neptunes have worked out that ’00 is when R&B producers get to step out of thanks-clotted CD booklets and act like Names: on Kaleidoscope they get almost as many shout-outs as Kelis does.

Deservedly, too: the album is stuffed with fresh ideas, hooks and nagging moments. The Neptunes pitch their sound in the rewarding middle ground between Princely party-funk and the rattle, lurch and snap of today’s Timbaland-steeped popscape, with nearly every track offering a surprise or two. “Roller Rink”‘s production is a jewelbox of synth sounds, and its chorus is nursery-rhyme simple, but the sentiments – “Imagine you and me fucking in a spaceship” – are gleefully horny. “Wouldn’t You Agree” is 100% swingbeat syrup until the dissonant brass squalls in and the chorus is suffused in an eerie, slippery keening. “Good Stuff” doesn’t offer any twists, but with a beat that swaggering it hardly needs to. Most wonderful of all is “Mafia”, exotic and dangerous, Kelis’ sultry vocal draped over nervy cardiac beats. “Of course I’d die for you” she purrs, and you think: this is the best pop in the world right now.

It doesn’t all work.“Ghetto Children” does the wholemeal thing passably, but the guest singer cloys and nobody’s heart seems to be in it. “Game Show”, meanwhile, hints at what irritants and disappointments might follow if the Neptunes turn their freaky-kiddybeat thing into a full-time schtick. Luckily, they and Kelis mostly have a firm grip on their new pop aesthetic: a glammy take on R&B, spacey soda-stream raygun boogie mixing pioneer and party spirit. The Neptunes love toy-box sounds – clockwork beats, wobbly bass, crisply distinct keyboard settings – which they layer up and fill out with rich washes of voice or strings. You can get their measure best on a track like “Mars”, where the drums rattle like biscuit tins and the laser guns sound like they came out of a Christmas stocking, but you still can’t help yourself throwing sci-fi shapes when the chorus hits.

Kaleidoscope is good-humoured and positive, staying clear of the current ice-queen money-talks trend in female R&B, but musically siding firmly with the futuristic pop which Destiny’s Child, TLC et al. pushed forward last year. It’s an excellent album, maybe even a breakthrough – the most convincing pop-soul record for ages, because it shows how soul needn’t be a learned style, needn’t have one eye on the past all the time. For anyone even vaguely interested in keeping pace with pop music, I’d say it’s a necessity.