In the aughts the music of Prince was a clear funky influence on R&B music, when it wanted to capture a sound that was more musical, nostalgic, and yet futuristic and electronic enough to sound contemporary. The Neptunes were leaders in this trend, as Prince’s concise, simple funky grooves could fit easily into their electro Hip-Hop, rhythm centered dance productions. Chad and Pharrell had the unique ability to take funky songs and rhythms and condense them into radio ready tracks with a modern electronic, thin, futuristic sonic quality. It was almost like they gave you the 8 bit version of past funk, soul, rock, and pop classics. In Kelis, they had the perfect muse. When I first saw Kelis’ “Caught Out There” back in my senior year of High School, she immediately impressed me as the prototype of the type of woman I wanted to talk to. She had all the eclectic Afrocentric, Afro-Punk, #carefreeblackgirl, #blackgirlmagic, artsy vibes I desired, in a package very close to my own age. “Milkshake” is the closest she ever came to the world takeover I felt she deserved. The song reached #4 on the pop charts in 2003, an absolute smash. Once again, The Neptunes draw on “Nasty Girl” as the epitome of female sexual braggadocio, both in the lyrics and more obliquely, in the track as well. They show their incredible skills in interpolation, as they take the percussion heavy groove of “Nasty Girl” and drop it off in the North African desert, keeping the basic percussion feel but playing it on instruments with a more exotic tonality.
“Milkshake” begins with one bar that sounds like the groove repeating over and over, after which it goes straight into the main groove. The chorus is right on the top, a very sing songy, sassy, “My Milkshake brings all the boys to the yard/their life/is better than yours/damn right/it’s better than yours/I could teach you/but I have to charge.” Which has a very schoolyard girls taunt vibe to it in the way it was said. Kelis speaks the main chorus and sings a very taunting higher part in a higher register. The drum beat again has the stop start vibe of “Nasty Girl” but this time the sound palette shifts from the Carribean/Afro Spanish world to India, North Africa, and Middle East. Just as James Brown demanded, the “One” is very hard, being played on what sounds like a goblet drum, with a full, round, ball being shot from a cannon sound. That Darka sound hits hard on the one, only playing about twice a bar, leaving lots of space for the smaller, Indian sounding percussion. The track, just like “Nasty Girl”, is very bassy, in this instance using a deep sawtooth synthesizer sound for the bassline that is basically playing “Na-Na, Na-NA, NAA”, a school yard chant sound Kelis will sing later in the tune. There is another synth part, about an octave up, but still very low playing a three note pattern, and the classic Neptunes clavinet/guitar/harpsichord sound is also present, taking the place of a rhythm guitar, playing jittery rhythms that complement the percussion. The keyboard part plays on the up beats but also lines up with the “Na-NA, NAA’s of the bass line, to give the effect of a track that is taunting you. All of this might be irritating if the track wasn’t so bassy and rooted in the low end, with even Kelis’s singing being in a fairly low register. The song also has a bridge where the drum beat continues unabated but the bass synth progresses deeper, as Kelis voice also goes deeper until the point where she has to talk her lines.
One of the most exciting musical developments in Black music for me in the aughts was the incorporation of Middle Eastren melodies, rhythms and instruments. I remember joking with my good friend Frank about going out to get an “Arab drum machine.” The incorporation of these sounds were very powerful in a pre and post 9/11 world, and one day musicologist a and sociologists might have a great time exploring the impetus behind the fusion. Prince tapped into a similar vibe in “Nasty Girl”, giving a singer who everybody thought was a Latina, an Afro-Carribean dance track. In truth, the Afro-Latin musical vibes made Funk, Afro Beat,a nd all the modern black musics possible, connecting black American music back to the African rhythmic source. The Middle Eastren/North African side is a part of this as well, with the musical influences on Europe of the Moors, and the Melisma in black singing being related to the songs of the Muslim world. In Muslim tradition it was Bilal the Ethiopian who originated the call to Mecca. Pharrell and Chad used this vibe to find a new sound here. And it’s one of the best pop hits ever, sassy, hip, ironic, humorous, and full of female swagger. Kelis songs a song of a supremely confident woman on her best day, with her Mojo working, stopping all traffic. The Neptunes went beyond merely copying “Nasty Girl” here to something far more difficult, MAKING their own “Nasty Girl.” They did it by bringing in unique influences and a unique sound palette, and making a song full of sexual confidence, but not sex itself, highlighting the allure of a confident woman.