“I will not judge. I will participate.” This is what Kelis promised a dance-ready crowd on the second of two New York dates co-headlining the “All Hearts” tour with Swedish electropop bobblehead Robyn. It was a fitting declaration of intent: Anchored by the David Guetta-produced “Acapella,” Kelis’ recent Fleshtone scuttles the ambitiously eccentric R&B of past releases for a harder, club-oriented style more favored in Europe (where she’s always had more hits) than in the U.S. On disc, the shift is disconcerting: Fleshtone is singleminded and curiously stolid, heavy on four-to-the-bar kick drum and light on syncopation. And how resonant or cathartic one finds the earthily sung, can’t-keep-me-down lyrics arrayed over the beats of “Emancipate ”—“yourself,” who else? — or “Brave” may depend on how closely one has tracked her personal arc (new baby, breakup with Nas) over the last three years.
Though her two DJs and a flesh-and-blood drummer were often a less than integral addition to Mac-triggered backing tracks, Kelis’ newest music found its purpose in a live setting: The repetitions and exhortations of “21st Century” and, especially, “Scream” (“It’s not enough to live, so just dream”) are designed for movement, not contemplation. Despite hey-I-know-that-one interpolations of sizeable chunks of “Holiday” and “Sign Your Name,”this was largely a forward-looking set, with “Milkshake” given a perfunctory airing, and singles from 2007’s underperforming Kelis Was Here (“Bossy,” “Blindfold Me”) conspicuously absent. (That album did supply the oddest choice, the obscure, trippy “Trilogy.”)
Despite her pledge, Kelis herself was more facilitator than full participant for much of the night, cutting a distant, glammy figure in her silver tinsel wig and geometically-patterned bodysuit. Or trying to: Pleading a disorienting headcold (“I’m a mess up here”), she shed the wig midset, revealing a rust-colored crop and singing the last third of the show au (relatively) naturel. This may not have made the music sound any different, but the crowd response make one wonder how well Kelis’s attempts at a more calculated self-presentation rooted in Nona Hendryx and Grace Jones — but increasingly the norm in l’age de Gaga – reflects her real appeal.
“Fembots are human too,” according to a retro-cyber standout track on Robyn’s new Body Talk Pt. 1, but you wouldn’t know it from the electropop bobblehead’s impeccably-paced show, which made Kelis’s look like a half-hearted promotional appearance. Though her Scandanavian career streches back to the early ‘90s, with some international hits later in the decade, her current American cult, critical and otherwise, is founded on her eponymous 2005 album, a shockingly consistent collection of formally masterful pop songs, some danceable, some soaring, fully accessorized with digital details and capped with crisply phrased (but not falsely “soulful”) vocals. Body Talk Pt. 1, the first of three mini-albums, maintains the same quality control but extends her stylistic range with the self-explanatory, Diplo-produced “Dancehall Queen” and an acoustic setting of the Swedish folksong “Jag Vet en Dejlig Rosa” (“I Know a Lovely Rose”).
The Webster Hall set gave pride of place to the new material, realized by a two-keyboard, two-drumkit band, uniformly outfitted in white labcoats. (I don’t know if any of these were her primary producer/co-writer Klas Åhlund, but all looked as though they’d be right at home strapping crashdummies into a Volvo.) Many popstars would give their in-ear monitors for an opening sequence as strong and varied as “Fembot,” the Patrik Berger-penned sad-in-the-club anthem “Dancing On My Own,” and “Cry When You Get Older,”which distills innumerable ‘80s teens-in-trouble songs – Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” pops to mind — into a message for the ages: “Love hurts if you do it right.”
Except for “Who’s That Girl” and “Dancehall Queen” (in which the singer took up sticks for a brief, crowd-pleasing timbale solo, uptempo material stole the show. “Cobrastyle,” a Cyndi-Lauper-meets-“Galang” bit of near-nonsense she inherited from Åhlund’s old band Teddybears, seemed faster, or at least more kinetic, than on record, especially when accompanied by her tireless bodyjacking. “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What to Do,” Body Talk’s opener, closed the main set in an extended version that gave Robyn a breather to munch a banana before acting out the verses’ litany of debilitation (“My neck is killing me…my back is killing me”) to a pre-recorded vocal, heading to the mic only at the title. It’s not the most tuneful item in her catalog, but its mash-up of vulnerability – other items killing the narrator include her ego, landlord, and label, which are harder to mime – and Pink-grade ‘tude issue straight from Nordic pop’s semi-mechanical heart: finely tooled, tender when it needs to be, and empty in all the right places.