On the playlist this week, I check out two new compilations: one from an early muse for the Neptunes, the other from the architects of the Philly Soul sound.
Kelis, The Hits: --When this Harlem native broke onto the pop scene in '99, I dug her right away. Her music -- anchored by the noisy rock textures and propulsive, ricocheting beats of the Neptunes -- was a sonic bag of Skittles. Kelis' first hit single, "Caught Out There," stood out on urban radio at the time with its screaming chorus: "I hate you so much right now."
After two adventurous but uneven albums -- 1999's Kaleidoscope and 2001's Wanderland, which was released only in Europe -- Kelis finally zoomed up the charts with 2003's coquettish "Milkshake." One of the most-played hits of that year, it pushed Tasty, her third and most satisfying album, to gold. But when her 2006 follow-up, Kelis Was Here, failed to make an impact, Jive Records, her label, promptly dropped her.
Presumably to fulfill her contract, the company has released a 14-song retrospective with an unimaginative and slightly deceptive title. Kelis hasn't notched that many big hits in the U.S. Her effervescent, left-of-center style has always been better-received overseas, where she has been a star since her debut.
The Hits includes all of Kelis' essential cuts: "Caught Out There," "Milkshake" and the superb "Get Along With You." About half the songs are quirky collaborations with hip-hop stars such as Too Short, Andre 3000, the late O.D.B. and Kelis' husband, the acclaimed Nas. Album cuts spotlighting more of Kelis would have been nice. But as it stands, The Hits is a succinct musical summation of one of the decade's most colorful talents.
Various Artists, Conquer the World: The Lost Soul of Philadelphia International Records: --In my parents' record collection, there were plenty of discs stamped with the famed pea soup-colored label. The O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle -- those legendary acts were well-represented on the shelf at home. The label's velvetysoul sound -- masterminded by label owners Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, both recent inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- is best remembered on classics such as "Me and Mrs. Jones" by Billy Paul and "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" by Lou Rawls.
Conquer the World is a deeper dig into the vaults of Philly International. The 16 cuts were recorded between 1971 and 1975 during the company's reign on the pop and R&B; charts. But none were hits, and just about all of the acts featured on the CD fell into obscurity soon after these songs were put on wax. Unless you were around Philadelphia in the '70s, you probably know nothing about groups such as Pat & the Blenders, Yellow Sunshine or the Futures.
Overall, the vocal performances on Conquer the World are rawer than what was heard on the hits the label charted at the time. But there's nothing especially remarkable about these forgotten tunes. Some are gloriously funky despite the silliness of the lyrics: "Grasshopper" by Soul Devalents and the over-the-top "Ghetto Woman" by Ruth McFadden are prime examples. But only hardcore Philly soul fans would be interested in this collection.