Another step out of the crazy closet for the mad king of R&B
Considering he’s spent most of the past 10 years at the sharp end of the parody stick, it was somehow inevitable that R Kelly would look to recuperate in the cosy hinterland of pastiche. Prior to 2010’s ‘Love Letter’, Kelly’s career was starting to resemble Slim Pickens rodeoing the H-bomb to Earth at the climax of Dr Strangelove. Between the escalating ridiculousness of his ‘Trapped In The Closet’ series and a run of innuendo-laden comedy albums no man with that many child pornography charges hanging over his head had any business making, he had become R&B’s Mad King Ludwig, a hubristic, egomaniacal and heroically unself-aware figure of fun.
When it comes to going off-reservation, no-one does it quite like R Kelly. But if ‘Love Letter’ – and now ‘Write Me Back’, its of-sorts companion piece – represent anything, it’s his screeching U-turn back from the credibility brink. Like its predecessor, which was an accomplished ode to old-school ’60s R&B, ‘Write Me Back’ serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it’s an exercise in Kelly’s versatility as a songwriter, albeit this time in the Philly soul style of the ’70s. On the other, it’s a canny bit of brand reconfiguration for a 45-year-old superstar desperately in need of some decorum. It’s not, in truth, wholly successful at either, but credit where it’s due: when it works, it works.
‘Love Is’ is a sparkling opener, a song with such an innate understanding of its influences you’ll swear Barry White first croaked it sometime in 1974. Similarly, ‘Fool For You’ – sung in a disarmingly sweet Smokey Robinson falsetto – sounds appropriately lived-in and authentic. In fact, the entire first half of the record is mostly great, if stylistically inconstant: ‘Feelin’ Single’ is more Teddy Riley than Teddy Pendergrass, while the blustery rhythm and blues of ‘All Rounds On Me’ is more in keeping with ‘Love Letter’’s modus operandi.
It’s not uncommon for Kelly to start off strong only to fall back on written-in-his-sleep slush halfway through, and with ‘Believe In Me’ and ‘Green Light’, ‘Write Me Back’ certainly does that. It’s not just that they’re poor songs; they also have too many shitty-sounding modern production tics to fit with the album’s old-timey aesthetic. On ‘You Are My World’, meanwhile, his outright imitation of Michael Jackson – technically impressive though it is – comes off as a bit creepy.
Kelly’s next album – due in 2013 – is called ‘Black Panties’. He apparently has another 12 chapters of ‘Trapped In The Closet’ ready to go. And you know what? We’re looking forward to it. He’s served his penance, making one great album and now another decent one in the process. But it’s time to unleash the crazy once again.