Around this time last year, I saw R. Kelly at the Prudential Center, and it was one of the most impressive live spectacles I’ve been witness to in my two-plus decades of attending big arena shows; there was an onstage bar complete with cocktail-shaking mixologist, an acapella reworking of his 1994 single “Bump N’ Grind” accompanied by video footage of a bunch of mouths—just mouths—singing the lascivious lyrics opera-style, bras being thrown from the crowd. (That the lingerie-tosser was sitting in the arena bowl, and not on the floor, made it even more noteworthy.)
At the center of it was Kelly, the self-proclaimed Pied Piper Of R&B—with good reason. Vocally, he’s one of pop’s premier male talents, able to throw out instantly hummable melodies seemingly on command; as a songwriter, he’s as able to craft throwbacky love songs that don’t sound like retro schlock as he is to write deadly serious sex jams. He’s one of those performers who throws himself so fully into whatever he’s doing that it’s unnerving to irony-damaged observers, who tend to react to him with the equivalent of an uneasy laugh. When he performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a boxing match in 2005, inflating the United States’ bombastic anthem with just enough air so that it could sound like an extended remix of his floaty 2003 hit “Step In The Name Of Love,” he outraged some, delighted others, and perplexed even more. The Trapped In The Closet series, a soap opera suite of songs with a plot that could populate The Jerry Springer Show for a month, seemingly anticipated most of its parodists; even “Weird Al” Yankovic’s riff on getting fast food that was based on it, “Trapped In The Drive-In,” couldn’t hold a candle to Kelly’s tales of affairs and other forms of deception.
Despite these forays into ludicrousness—and the increasingly obvious fact that he’s enjoying playing the peanut gallery for ready-to-mock fools even more than they relish their cackling—he’s played it straight for his past two albums. His last full-length, Love Letter, was a plunge into the past, with homages to Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye; it was led by the barnstorming “When A Woman Loves,” a dedication to devotion that showed off both the muscular timbre of his voice and its ability to float into butterfly-light falsettos. (OK, so the video was a bit over the top, with him singing into what seemed like a hundred microphones at one point.) Write Me Back (RCA), out this week, is a sequel of sorts to Love Letter (get it?), and it’s slightly less drenched in retro tropes, but it’s no less of an enjoyable listen.
On “Fool For You,” Kelly engages in his best Smokey Robinson impression, sustaining a single note over several beats in a way that comes off as sweet, and not cloying; “Feeling Single” is a happy-sad kiss-off to an increasingly uninterested lover that recalls Off The Wall-era Michael Jackson. The ballad “Clipped Wings” is probably the strongest track on the album; it depicts the kind of regret that can only come from watching a relationship that was once built upon love and mutual trust curdle into the type of poison that corrodes from within—and that only reveals its ruinous aspects until it’s way too late. It’s has a vibe to it that isn’t quite morose, but does closely recall those rainy, lonely summertime days when being pent-up inside results in a little too much reflecting on arguments and other sorts of slights.
The flip side of “Clipped Wings” comes in the form of party tracks. “Believe That It’s So” operates in the realm of “Ignition (Remix)” and “Step In The Name Of Love”—swaying and bubbly, with Kelly seemingly calling on a whole orchestra (there are disco strings and assertive brass) as he transitions from celebrating love’s ability to help people overcome adversity to celebrating celebration, singing over and over again about downing shot after shot until realizing that, oh wait, he’s drunk, and he’s going to need to draw on the aforementioned strength in order to overcome his impending hangover. Then there’s “Party Jumpin’,” where Write Me Back engages in a little bit of early-’00s nostalgia; the piano-propelled track sounds more like an homage to OutKast’s wedding-and-sweet-16 staple “Hey Ya!” much more than it does one to the era that both those tracks are paying tribute to; give it a snappy enough video (perhaps one involving a wedding party’s march down the aisle?) and it could very well sub in for that almost-decade-old track on professional DJs’ playlists.
This week also marks the release of Kelly’s new memoir Soulacoaster: The Diary Of Me (SmileyBooks). The book starts off with a recollection of the singer hiding in a drum case to watch his mother sing in a Chicago nightclub, and takes off from there. But even with all the drama (he goes into detail on the behind-the-scenes machinations during his trial for child-pornography charges, from which he was acquitted in 2008), one aside near the book’s end stuck out to me: “For reasons I can’t explain, [‘Sex Planet’] became a big hit with indie rockers and made a number of their top 10 lists in 2007.” The track—from Kelly’s album Double Up, and rife with coitus-as-otherwordly-journey metaphors—is a featherweight slow jam, not as satisfying as the best tracks on the more retrofied albms that followed it but musically satisfying, if a bit groanworthy when it gets to the inevitable Uranus reference. Nevertheless, I suspect that, given Kelly’s increasingly ability to stay one step ahead the ironists, he knows quite well that those “reasons” boil down in large part to the fact that—odd conflations of Milky Way the galaxy and Milky Way the candy bar and milk-producing organs on women aside—dude knows how to write a song, and even those listeners who are as devoted to smirking at music with any sort of pop pedigree can’t deny that fact.
R. Kelly will sign copies of Soulacoaster: The Diary Of Me at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble on Thursday. Please note: This event has been canceled due to illness.