AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
R&B singer Kelis Rogers, or simply Kelis, has made a career of reinventing herself. She did her first live show in years last week at the South by Southwest Festival. NPR's Monika Evstatieva was there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELING GOOD")
KELIS ROGERS: (Singing) It's a new day, it's a new life.
MONIKA EVSTATIEVA, BYLINE: A rendition of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" is the first song the audience at South by Southwest heard. And appropriately so as Kelis re-emerged after four years. But in her typical, strong-headed fashion, she insists she has not been away for that long.
ROGERS: No, not at all. I don't know who said that. Like, that's not true.
EVSTATIEVA: Well, it is true. But in her defense, Kelis never stopped touring in Europe and Asia, where her last albums have been more successful. Kelis started singing as a teenager. By the time she turned 20, she had her first hit single, "Caught Out There."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAUGHT OUT THERE")
ROGERS: (Singing) Caught out there. I hate you so much right now. I hate you so much right now.
EVSTATIEVA: But it was her 2003 song "Milkshake" that made her an international pop star.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILKSHAKE")
ROGERS: (Singing) My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. And they're like, it's better than yours. Damn right, it's better than yours. I can teach you but I have to charge.
EVSTATIEVA: After "Milkshake," success did not come easily. And in 2006, Kelis decided to make a change, a big change. After a long dispute with her label, she quit music and started cooking.
ROGERS: To be honest with you, when I went to culinary school, I really felt like I was done with music. I needed a break. You know, I didn't set out to be a singer or anything like that, so I kind of felt like I had accomplished more than I could have ever imagined and it was no longer fun.
EVSTATIEVA: After a year of intense classes, she graduated from the Cordon Bleu cooking school as a certified...
ROGERS: Saucier, yeah.
EVSTATIEVA: An expert in sauces, that is. So naming her new album was a no-brainer.
ROGERS: When someone asked me, you know, what the name of the album, I think I just jokingly said, "Food." And when I said it out loud, it was like, ah, that's a good - I'm going to stick with that. That's good.
EVSTATIEVA: And most of her song titles are named for food but they are really not about that like this track, "Jerk Ribs."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JERK RIBS")
ROGERS: (Singing) When I was a girl, my daddy was my world. He played the notes and keys. He said to look for melody in everything.
I grew up in Harlem. And my dad was a jazz musician and so he would just practice and just play all day. And so it became this backdrop for my life, became the soundtrack from my upbringing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JERK RIBS")
ROGERS: (Singing) It feels just like it should. I wake up, this, and this is what it looks like. This is what it looks like.
EVSTATIEVA: Kelis' gastronomic passion did not stop with the track names. She's come up with another clever gimmick, a food truck, and she brought it with her to Austin, chef by day, R&B diva by night.
ROGERS: Last night, actually, before I went on stage, I went and had to finish up some sauces. And then around 2:00, I'll be cooking again.
EVSTATIEVA: And what was the reaction to her food?
JULIE JARZEMSKI: My name is Julie Jarzemski. We just happened across the Kelis food truck.
EVSTATIEVA: How are the jerk ribs?
JARZEMSKI: They're delicious. They're a little spicy, got some yummy coleslaw on the side, yeah, it's just awesome. Good job, Kelis.
EVSTATIEVA: The only complaint, no milkshake on the menu. Well, maybe that can be added later. As for her new songs, the reaction at South by Southwest was more mixed.
CHRISTINA: My name is Christina. I'm from Austin, Texas. And I'm a little disappointed that she has totally changed her style of music. I just feel like there is an edge that she has completely taking out of her new music, and I'm just being honest.
EVSTATIEVA: Kelis has changed her style. And at 34, she's happy where she's at. And she says, when she goes on tour, the food truck is coming with her. Something for everyone, whether you prefer her jerk ribs in a song or on a plate. Monika Evstatieva, NPR News.
CORNISH: And Monika is our director. She fixed the music on our show. And to hear her favorites, head to Spotify. You'll find her playlist @npratc.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOREVER BE")
ROGERS: (Singing) Killing off till nothing is left. And that comes on in the moonlight.
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