When she was writing Wanderland in 2001, Kelis probably didn’t know how prescient the album title would end up being. It’s an obvious pun: a reference to Lewis Carroll’s classic novel Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, it’s also evocative of the desire for adventure and wanderlust.
Wanderland has its own fabled story behind its release. Amid a series of label mergers and other industry upsets, Kelis’ experimental sophomore album got lost in the shuffle. Right when it was released in Europe, Kelis parted ways with her label, and the album was never released in the US. Wanderland was… wandering. But a Neptunes-produced Kelis album wasn’t going to elude fans forever.
A significant mythology
Wanderland became one of the most storied “lost albums” of the era – even if it wasn’t really lost, just exceedingly hard to come by. It was, of course, imported, bootlegged and loved, before finally being released in the States via streaming services in June 2019, 18 years after its October 17, 2001 release date around the rest of the world.
Kelis wasn’t alone; this was the second time in three years that a Neptunes-produced project got shelved. Clipse had suffered the same fate with their album Exclusive Audio Footage, which, like Wanderland, accrued a significant mythology during its lost years. In fact, Clipse, as individuals, feature on Wanderland as well, with Pusha T and Malice featuring on the tracks “Popular Thug” and “Daddy” respectively.
Timelier than ever
Pharrell himself lends vocals to a handful of tracks, but, like Clipse’s appearances, these spots help tether Wanderland to our familiarity with The Neptunes’ sound rather than overshadowing the album’s departure from it. Ultimately, this is a Kelis album first and foremost, not a Neptunes project. Even if the beats immediately identify it as being of the era (no bad thing), Wanderland is a welcome – if not unexpected – departure from the braggadocio of N*E*R*D and Clipse… even if the Rosco P Coldchain feature on “Digital World” makes you think Ab-Liva is going to pop around the corner any second.
About halfway through Wanderland, “Shooting Stars” starts to sound like something out of a late-90s shoegaze album, or Frank Ocean a decade ahead of schedule. Even when it’s less outwardly self-assured than the work of Kelis’ counterparts, Wanderland remains self-aware – and sexy with it. Outside of some dated tech references, “Digital World” is timelier than ever, proving that people have been struggling with sex and technology for decades.
Predicting the hip-hop hybrid
When “Perfect Day” hits, it’s an arresting moment: the kind of perfect hip-hop/rock hybrid that would have felt right at home on Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding. Indeed, two decades on from its release, Wanderland’s crossover appeal is almost shocking, making you wonder how anyone could have shelved the record. “Perfect Day” sounds like the kind of rock-rap hit Pharrell would chase for the better part of a decade. That it features contributions from No Doubt makes sense: they’d spent the late 90s crafting their own reputation for genre-blending, while Pharrell and Gwen Stefani would go on to have a hugely successful working relationship just a handful of years later.
Wanderland ends on its most unexpected notes: “Mr. UFO Man” and “Little Suzie.” The tracks address God, but are ultimately more existential in nature. “UFO Man” centers around the idea that things have gotten so complicated in the world, only an alien is capable of relating to The Creator. Released just one month after the September 11 attacks, it didn’t sound like such a far-fetched idea at the time.
On “Little Suzie,” Kelis casts herself as a woman aware of the problems the world faces, while “just trying to play my part.” If she’s doing anything, it’s what God willed for her. This sentiment of self-assurance, if only a misguided half-truth, feels all the more powerful in the light of Wanderland’s receiving the release it always deserved.