R Kelly has come through trials and tribulations with a sense of humour, and a rebuilt larynx. Now he wants you to climb on and enjoy the ride
R Kelly Write Me Back RCA, £12.99
The life and career of R&B kingpin Robert Sylvester Kelly has been interesting to say the least. To date he has shifted 50 million albums of his oversexed, overproduced smoochy balladeering and written and produced tracks for soul titans such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Mary J Blige among many others.
But he has also attracted less welcome notoriety relating to underage girls, leading to child pornography charges (he was declared not guilty in 2008). While waiting for his trial, he launched a bonkers yet brilliant musical counteroffensive in the shape of cult “hip-hopera” Trapped in the Closet, which tells the story of a one-night stand and its complex consequences through a series of 22 songs and accompanying videos. Its online popularity has given his beleaguered career some forward momentum again, as did his unexpectedly classy 2010 comeback album Love Letter, which eschewed his trademark pseudo-steamy bump’n’grind heavy breathing for the more gentlemanly strains of old-school soul.
After throat surgery last year, Kelly is back on the soul train, looking airbrushed and suave on the sleeve of Write Me Back. As the title implies, it is intended as a follow-up to Love Letter but where the earlier album took its lead from 60s soul greats such as Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, Write Me Back is more Stylistics and Stevie Wonder, with the sound of the 70s soul purveyors running through many of the songs.
Kelly is still utterly incorrigible, however. He had originally intended to follow Love Letter with an album entitled Black Panties. This presumably more explicit booty call is still slated for future release but in the meantime Kelly has decided to stick with the softly softly approach to seduction.
You have to admire his chutzpah. On Share My Love, he manages to frame the lyrical come-on to “populate, let’s get together, populate, make the world better” in such accurately retro style that it sounds like a What’s Going On-style inspirational message. In this convincing context, Kelly is simply doing his humanitarian duty by spreading his seed and it is to the benefit of the planet he be allowed to conduct a mass seduction.
Although Write Me Back is essentially a pastiche, it’s a very fluent pastiche on which Kelly puts his keen production skills and considerable vocal talents to appealing use. He kicks off with carefree disco paean Love Is before pirouetting effortlessly on to the cool, breezy Bill Withers-style jam Feeling Single, which channels the spirit of Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson in its celebratory whoops. There is an innocent Isleys-style insouciance to Lady Sunday on which he pays tribute to the redemptive power of love – and suggests that that great love might be music, rather than a woman. The more lightweight Fool For You, meanwhile, is more of a 60s Motown homage rendered with a Smokey Robinson sweetness.
There is a party playfulness to some tracks. The one-more-for-the-road scenario of Believe That It’s So could have been lifted straight from an episode of Trapped in the Closet as Kelly realises “I’ve had a little too much to drink.” Alcohol is his besht friend on All Rounds On Me, a finger-popping rock’n’roll jive on which he captures the fleeting invincibility conferred by a night on the liquor. By the time he gets to the High School Musical 60s-themed prom dance bubblegum of Party Jumpin’, he is the testifying life and soul of the joint.
He doesn’t escape from the footloose revelry without a hangover. There is an Aaron Neville-style catch in his voice as he counts the ways on When A Man Lies. The slightly syrupy mea culpa mood persists on the melodramatic R&B piano ballad Clipped Wings, embellished with fluttering, layered harmony vocals. But just when you think Kelly might finally have learned some humility, he reverts to his signature salacious R&B persona for Green Light, on which he appeals most persuasively for the rumpy-pumpy go-ahead.
He continues the entertaining charm offensive on the bonus tracks, which could outspoof Flight of the Conchords if Kelly’s comic intent could actually be established. The priceless One Step Closer traces his race across town to his paramour’s boudoir (“time must be on our side, cos baby so far every light is a green light”), while Beautiful In This Mirror is a (knowingly?) hilarious entreaty to the lucky lady to look at his manhood in the mirror. “I’m so proud of us babe, it’s a victory,” he salivates. Why, Mr Kelly, the pleasure is surely all ours.
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