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 Reign features 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.
That understated confidence also drives Faith Evans’s first album in five years, which serves as her first indie release following stints with Bad Boy and Capitol. (Because it’s that time of year, allow me to heartily recommend the latter label’s 2005 offering A Faithful Christmas, on which the former Mrs. Biggie Smalls offers up some of the most emotionally complicated holiday music I’ve heard.) Something About Faith features high-wattage guest shots by Snoop Dogg and Raekwon (each of whom claims the singer as his homegirl), but with its cozy home-fire thematics and tasteful quiet-storm arrangements, the disc always feels like Evans’s grown-up show. An r&b traditionalist with hip-hop history, she makes no bones about her old-fashioned value system, as she outlines in literal laundry-list fashion on “Real Things”: “Security, serenity, stability,” she sings. “Loyalty, honesty, sanity.” For who else would that constitute a hook?
Evans goes frothier for her own cameo on Eric Benét’s “Feel Good,” a precisely calibrated (and thoroughly delightful) classic-Chic pastiche that proves the former Mr. Halle Berry wasn’t kidding when he titled his new one Lost in Time. Elsewhere on this crafty album, Benét expertly channels the plush balladry of mid-’80s Luther Vandross (“Never Live Without You”), the propulsive zing of early-’70s Philly soul (“Paid,” featuring Eddie Levert himself), and the frantic cheer of last-days disco (“Good Life”). His most impressive trip backward, though, comes in “Sometimes I Cry,” which couldn’t sound more like an outtake from Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night if it sprouted pretty wings and flew the urban hang suite. “Two years since you walked away from me,” Benét falsetto-izes over a spacey electric-piano groove, “since all of our scattered dreams were just thrown away.” That line may or may not be Benét’s attempt to claim a point of inspiration predating Maxwell’s 2009 return. Either way, its invocation of a powerful memory feels firmly like a product of its time.