R&B Serenity Now: R. Kelly, Ne-Yo, and Others Keep the Quiet-Storm Flame Alive

When a perennially chart-topping r&b superstar compares his lover to a number-one hit—as R. Kelly does in “Number One Hit,” a cut from his new Love Letter—just how psyched should the lover be? I mean, a number-one hit—that’s definitely good! But Kelly’s had, like, a zillion of ’em; “Number One Hit” isn’t even his first song about a number-one hit. (Number one among those? “Number One,” from last year’s Untitled.) So doesn’t that mean that Kelly’s metaphor says less about the lover’s uniqueness than it does about how readily she’ll be replaced?

That may well be the singer’s point, of course, given the nearly philosophical aversion to monogamy depicted in his “Trapped in the Closet” serial. But the ambiguity sticks out on the commitment-pimping Love Letter, much of which plays like a modest about-face from Untitled’s unabashed raunch. “Even when I’m dead and gone,” he sings in the Sam Cooke–styled “When a Woman Loves,” “I’m gonna love her from the sky.”

Whatever the true message of “Number One Hit,” you can’t blame Kelly for having Billboard on the brain: Music’s fourth-quarter release schedule has been unusually packed with classically minded r&b albums, all of them in competition for those holiday-shopping dollars not already earmarked for Speak Now or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In addition to Kelly’s latest, new discs are out (or coming) from Ne-Yo, Jazmine Sullivan, Charlie Wilson, Faith Evans, Eric Benét, El DeBarge, Tank, Sunshine Anderson, Avant, Keyshia Cole, and Ron Isley. Even the high-minded Chrisette Michele, whose Let Freedom Reignfeatures typically brainy cameos by Talib Kweli and Black Thought, gets in on the chart-jockeying act with her own tune called “Number One” (which is actually about the struggle for self-empowerment, but still). Like everything else this fall, these records have been thoroughly overshadowed; their simultaneous appearance, though, seems to reflect the industry’s belief in a robust soul-music market currently underserved by the fashion-forward likes of Ciara, Keri Hilson, and The-Dream.

Some of these throwback specialists throw back further than others. On Libra Scale, the follow-up to 2008’s masterful Year of the Gentleman, Ne-Yo pays loving homage to vintage solo Michael Jackson, floating his meticulously multi-tracked vocals over shimmering arrangements long on creamy keys and disco-derived bass lines; sometimes, as in “Cause I Said So” or “What Have I Done,” you’ll hear a lick that sounds like Ne-Yo simply broke apart the notes in one of Jackson’s melodies, then reassembled them in a slightly different order.

Jazmine Sullivan aims for an adjacent early-’80s pleasure center in “Don’t Make Me Wait,” a very Purple Rain–ish highlight from her solid Love Me Back that actually repurposes a considerable chunk of Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It.” Ne-Yo’s producing partner, Chuck Harmony, shows up later for the finger-wagging “Good Enough,” and again you find yourself thinking about Prince—though not as much as you think about Ne-Yo in “U Get on My Nerves,” which he co-wrote, co-produced, and hijacks for the first verse. If Michele seems in search of more modern ground in the spookily minimal “So in Love,” she evidently forgot to clue in Rick Ross, who peppers his guest verse with references to such icons of ’80s-ness as Tony Montana and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Ron Isley similarly hooks up hip-hop’s help for “Put Your Money on Me,” wherein T.I.’s barrage of luxury-brand shout-outs confers some ostensible currency to a sad little comeback jam in need of a good deal more luxury. On Tavis Smiley last month, Isley admitted that the track was originally intended to be the first single from Mr. I, his first official solo album after decades of operation under the evolving Isley Brothers banner; alas, T.I.’s recent re-incarceration left the rapper unavailable for a video shoot. (Isley had to have understood: The 69-year-old himself got out of prison earlier this year following a bid for tax-evasion charges.) Forced to improvise, Def Jam led instead with the silky “No More,” which presents Isley in a much more flattering light as he likens a lover to “a timeless record,” “an old-school ’64,” and, perhaps most endearingly, “my favorite TV show.”

The song’s subtext, of course, is the fortification of Isley’s legend status in the Age of Auto-Tune. At one point, he sharpens the conceit to a point his old collaborator Kelly might appreciate: “Just like a record in the studio/They don’t make ’em like you no more.” Demonstrably untrue, obviously. Yet Isley squeezes the sour grapes so effortlessly that you’re willing to indulge his White Striped paranoia. Former Gap Band frontman Charlie Wilson seems far less worried about his legacy on Just Charlie, an appealingly breezy set that takes its old-school timelessness as a given—he even convinces the perpetually anguished Fantasia to lighten up for a sweet, sleek rendition of “I Want to Be Your Man,” care of Roger Troutman, whose oft-sampled talk-box indiscretions paved the way for such robo-soul interlopers as T-Pain and Jason Derulo. Then again, maybe this G.O.O.D. Friday veteran is just more sure than Isley of his next-gen appeal.

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