It’s at once preposterous and strangely plausible that R. Kelly, known for his numerous and brazen fetishes as much as his music, has now released two albums of meticulously tasteful soul. This is a man, after all, who sprays innuendo throughout the cosmos (on 2007’s Double Up alone: Jurassic Park; Skittles; sexasauri; the literal cosmos, including its most punnable planet); who released an umpteen-part sung-through soap opera with the sex and sensibilities of a college improv troupe; who announced an album called Black Panties and made fans drop theirs; who, even before his child-pissing scandal had mentioned, as part of a seduction, “giving [you] meteor showers.” But even that surprised nobody, because self-parody is simply what Kells does.
R. Kelly’s latest album Write Me Back isn’t parody, but pastiche — specifically, of every R&B form from the late ‘50s until whatever decade disqualifies him from a “retro” tag. Rollicking bobbysox tracks like “All Rounds On Me” and “Party Jumpin’” can coexist with the gospel of “Love Is,” the stately disco of “Feelin’ Single” and “Share My Love,” and one or more Barry White, Sam Cooke or Michael Jackson homage deployed per song, yet everything still manages to code amorphously ‘70s. Anything lurid is muted by this musical Hays code; as for sexual excess, he’s ceded that territory lately to Lloyd, whose “Dedication to My Ex” R. Kelly would and could probably still have pulverized, and Usher, whose Looking 4 Myself extends some metaphors nearly as far as Kells did. And unlike Usher and peers like Miguel, who mine both top 40 and underground production for new-sounding beats, Kelly isn’t interested in sonic experimentation. There is nothing innovative about Write Me Back. R. Kelly sings the historical gamut competently, and every musician (or, frequently and irritatingly, MIDI controller) has been directed to sound as sumptuously familiar as possible. Kelly’s dabbling in just as many genres and personae as any multi-hyphenate album at this point, though there’s an even better argument that his entire career tangent is also market-driven (Love Letter outperformed its predecessor Untitled, in both sales and acclaim). But Kelly’s enough of a traditionalist that from him, it doesn’t seem like image rehabilitation so much as a refractory period.
Relentless retromania is standard these days — it’s sustaining Cee-Lo Green’s entire career and the careers of half the BRIT school. But Write Me Back’s retromania is far from new for Kelly; it’s a postscript to his already-dispatched Love Letter – serial love letters also being something Kells just does. If there’s a new emphasis, that clue’s in the title as well; R. Kelly wants his audience in on it too. It’s standard call-and-response stuff, and indeed, the album begins at the church of “Love Is,” where Kells exhorts: “How many of you are living witness that love is real? … Look at your lover, and recite these words,” at which point one would presumably let spill all one’s grandiose affection. Midway through “Believe That It’s So,” R. Kelly turns wedding DJ: “Is it alright if we switch it up?” And again, a few tracks later, “Everybody got their drinks? Party people, are you ready?” in which the sampled crowd response drops out for what’s undoubtedly meant to be a live one.
Good luck eliciting such a response, though. The track’s called “Party Jumpin’” and it sounds as awkward as its title. Kelly’s much better on actually timeless material, like the pillowy, yearning “Believe In Me” or the quietstorm of “Green Light,” than when he tries to update his lyrics from discotheque to club. It all comes off as backwards bowdlerization. You can hardly blame Kells, though, for giving his audience what they want. After all, when he boasted in earnest that Love Letter would “bring love songs back to the radio,” people applauded not his sincerity but his public persona, that ridiculous, anachronistic loverman they imagined speaking. It’s that persona you can’t help but search for, half-find in half-innuendos, and half-celebrate. Of everything on Write Me Back, a single word’s possibly been mentioned most: “populate,” from the bridge of closer “Share My Love,” which people are treating at this point practically as a Dalek macro and which will probably rival “freakin’ weekend” for viral longevity. But Kelly knows this; that was the lead single, after all, and the music drops out for a sting right after he delivers the soon-to-be-meme. Kells is still playing himself; he’s just in a costume drama. If only it dated better.
R. Kelly’s Write Me Back is out now via RCA. Watch the video for “Share My Love” below: