Kelis was born and raised in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, New York. Her first name is a Portmanteau of her father's name, Kenneth, and her mother's name, Eveliss. Kenneth is an African American jazz musician, Pentecostal minister, and was a professor at Wesleyan University. Eveliss is a Chinese-Puerto Rican fashion designer who inspired Kelis to pursue her singing career.
As a child, she sang in church choirs and played violin, piano, and saxophone while attending Manhattan Country School, a private school. Kelis left home at age sixteen, but continued her education at age sixteen when she went to the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, where she formed the R&B trio BLU (Black Ladies United). After graduation, she formed a band with The Neptunes and, with their support, landed herself a record deal.
1999 - 2002: Kaleidoscope and Wanderland
Kelis began recording her debut album, Kaleidoscope, in late 1998 and was finished within a year. The album was produced by The Neptunes members Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. It debuted at number one hundred and forty-four on the Billboard 200 and reached the top fifty on the Top Heatseekers, selling over 10,736 copies in its first week of release. The album has since sold 249,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Its lead and most notable single, "Caught out There", peaked at number nine on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and became a minor MTV/BET video hit. The entire album took off in Europe, where all three singles — "Caught out There", "Good Stuff" (featuring Terrar of Clipse), and "Get Along with You" — were sizable hits. Kelis's colorful style in both clothing and hair received considerable attention.
"Caught out There" entered the UK Singles Chart at number four. With its success, it was decided that another single should be released. A second single, "Good Stuff", was a modest hit, securing a number nineteen position on the UK Singles Chart, although the third release, "Get Along with You", only reached number fifty-one in the United Kingdom, despite Kelis promoting the track there. The British Phonographic Industry certified Kaleidoscope gold, selling over 100,000 copies in the UK, where it reached number forty-three on the UK Albums Chart. Furthermore, Kelis won the BRIT Award for International Breakthrough Act in 2001.
Kelis's second album, Wanderland, was released two years later exclusively in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, after its lead single, "Young, Fresh n' New", failed to catch on in the U.S. The video for the song barely registered on American MTV or VH1, but received heavy airplay on MTV2 as well as on Canada's MuchMusic. According to Kelis, then-U.S. record company Virgin did not understand Wanderland. The record executives at Virgin felt the album material did not have strong enough singles. Unlike those of her debut, Wanderland's sales were mediocre, with just 80,000 copies sold worldwide, and the only single released off the album, "Young, Fresh n' New", only managed to reach number thirty-two in the UK. The album was, however, critically acclaimed.
2003 - 2005: Tasty
Kelis finally found mainstream success in the U.S. in 2003, with her Hot Dance Club Play number-one, Billboard Hot 100 top five single, "Milkshake"; this helped to propel her third album, Tasty, to sell over 400,000 copies in the U.S in only two months. It also earned her a Grammy Award nomination in 2004 for Best Urban/Alternative Performance. Although The Neptunes contributed a number of tracks to the album, Kelis began collaborating with other producers, such as Dallas Austin, André 3000, Rockwilder, and Raphael Saadiq, producing an altogether more eclectic, alternative sound. According to Nielsen SoundScan numbers, the album has sold 533,000 copies in the United States and has gained gold status in the U.S., where "Milkshake" also went gold, selling over 500,000 copies.
The single and album immediately found success in Europe. According to the BPI, Tasty went platinum in the United Kingdom, selling over 300,000 copies, and the hit single "Milkshake" went silver, selling over 200,000 units—it was the UK's fourteenth best-selling single in 2004. The album's second single, the Dallas Austin-produced "Trick Me", also proved successful on radio and music video channels in Europe, and went to the top ten in many European countries during mid-2004. However, the song did not garner success in the U.S., where its music video barely received airplay. "Trick Me" was important because The Neptunes were, for once, not involved in its production. Kelis's success grew in Australia, where Tasty went gold with over 35,000 copies sold, and where "Milkshake" and "Trick Me" went platinum (selling over 70,000 copies each).
"Not in Love", Kelis's collaboration with Enrique Iglesias from his 2003 seventh studio album, 7, was released as a single the following year, reaching number five in the UK. Although the single failed to chart on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, it topped the U.S. Hot Dance Club Play chart. Kelis followed the success of the third Tasty single, "Millionaire" (featuring André 3000), with the Rockwilder-produced, sexually suggestive track "In Public" (featuring Nas). The single reached number seventeen on the UK chart with no video shot. In Australia, the single was her third consecutive top forty hit.
During this time, she collaborated with Björk on a remix of the first single from Medúlla, "Oceania", which appeared as a B-side to the album's second single, "Who Is It". With the success of Tasty, Kelis went on tour as the opening act for Britney Spears's The Onyx Hotel Tour in 2004.
2006 - 2008: Kelis Was Here and The Hits
Kelis's fourth studio album, Kelis Was Here (originally due to be called The Puppeteer), was released in August 2006, and debuted and peaked at number ten on the Billboard 200. Despite its top ten debut, the album has sold only 157,000 copies in the United States as of October 2007, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Its lead single, "Bossy" (featuring Too Short), achieved frequent airplay on urban radio and was a moderate hit in the U.S., peaking at number sixteen. The single "Bossy" also went multi platinum in December 2006 according to the RIAA. The album includes production credits by So Solid Crew, Scott Storch, Cee-Lo Green (from the Gnarls Barkley fame), Raphael Saadiq, will.i.am, Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Knobody, Polow da Don, Damon Elliott, Cool and Dre, Sean Garrett, and Bangladesh. Unlike on Kelis's previous efforts, the production duo The Neptunes are not featured at all; Kelis was quoted as saying that it was "very important to me", but also that it was purely a creative decision and that she has no ill will toward Williams or Hugo. Kelis Was Here was nominated for Best Contemporary R&B Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards, but lost out to Beyoncé's B'Day.
The second single from the album, which was pushed by her American label (Jive), was the collaboration with Nas, "Blindfold Me". The song missed the Billboard Hot 100, and reached only #91 on the R&B chart. Afterwards, her European label (Virgin) decided not to release the single and to go instead with the Cee-Lo-featuring "Lil Star", which was another hit for Kelis in the United Kingdom, peaking at #3. In the UK, Kelis Was Here has shipped 60,000 copies and earned a silver certification from the BPI. It charted at #41 only, but concurrent to the popularity of "Lil Star", it re-entered the albums chart in February 2007. According to the ARIA, Kelis Was Here went gold, selling 35,000 despite the fact the album had a low debut of only ninety-six on the Australian Albums Chart. The popularity of the album's track "I Don't Think So" increased after its use in promotion for the 2008 season of the reality series Big Brother Australia. The song peaked at #27 on the ARIA chart and became a top ten urban hit. During the summer of 2007, Kelis toured in Europe, appearing in numerous festivals among the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
Kelis collaborated with Busta Rhymes and will.i.am on the track "I Love My Bitch", the second single from Rhymes's 2006 seventh studio album, The Big Bang. This was the second time Kelis has teamed up with Rhymes, the first being his 2001 song "What It Is". Kelis is also featured on the soundtrack to the 2005 film Just Like Heaven with a cover version of The Pretenders' 1979 classic "Brass in Pocket", as well as on the soundtrack to the 2006 dance film Step Up with a song called "80's Joint". Ford chose Kelis to help advertise the 2007 Ford Edge, and she recorded a theme song for the commercial, entitled "Push It to the Edge", with help from producer Scott Storch. Kelis was set to be working with Annie Lennox on a duet for the Eurythmics' new album, due to release in late November. Artists such as Pink, Mary J. Blige, and Madonna were also to appear on the album.
In October 2007, Kelis's manager told Entertainment Weekly that the singer was working with Cee-Lo Green on an alternative dance album and would be shopping a pop album produced by songwriter Guy Chambers, who co-wrote hits such as Robbie Williams's "Angels". Scottish electronica producer Calvin Harris was also said to be collaborating with her.
After Kelis left the Zomba label, the label released a fourteen-track greatest hits album entitled The Hits (previously due to be titled Good Stuff - The Best of Kelis) in March 2008 in the United Kingdom. The album does not contain any previously unreleased songs, although Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money", N.E.R.D's "Truth or Dare", and Richard X's "Finest Dreams" appear on the album, which is unusual for a hits collection album as she was a featured, not headlining artist on these tracks. The Hits includes every charted Kelis single to that date with the exception of "Blindfold Me" (featuring Nas). Kelis never had any intention of releasing The Hits herself.
2009 - Present: Flesh Tone
Kelis has confirmed through her twitter page that she is finishing an album to be released 2010 under Interscope Records via the Will.I.Am.Music Group. In October 2009, Kelis premiered the lead single from her fifth studio album, Flesh Tone, called "Acapella". It is a dance song produced by David Guetta, about her son, Knight. "Acapella" received a good reception reaching over 2 million views on youtube within the first 3 weeks.