5:10 pm Jun. 26, 2012
The post-Back to Black wave of R&B retro is the best thing that could have happened to R. Kelly.
From Raphael Saadiq’s The Way I See It to Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” to Usher and Pharrell’s new “Twisted,” R&B veterans are mining the distant past more flagrantly than ever. Contrast those songs with, say, Donna Summer’s “I Remember Yesterday” and “Love’s Unkind”—1940s razzmatazz and early-’60s girl group, respectively, both done up as 1977 disco—or God knows how many late versions of “Please Please Please” cut by James Brown. Summer and Brown made updates. Today's soul retreads, including Amy Winehouse’s standing testament, are faux-artifacts, intended to fool you into thinking you’ve heard them before. That you haven’t is as much a part of the pleasure as their sheer quality.
Like Saadiq, who’s been aping earlier production styles with aplomb since 1996’s Tony Toni Toné album House of Music, Kelly is hardly new to deliberate sonic throwbacks. In fact, Kelly’s inspired one of them: The turn of R&B beats to straight four-to-the-floor disco kick drums can be traced back to the “stepper’s” beat Kelly began to utilize more frequently in the early 2000s. (“Stepping” is a Chicago-rooted African American social dance that operates a light four, rather than the hard one of much disco.)
But Kelly has responded deliberately to the new vogue, first with 2010’s superb Love Letter, and now with a follow-up, titled, what else, Write Me Back, out today on Jive. And in doing so, he’s got a concept in hand that seems heartfelt rather than gimmicky. It’s resulted in what might be the most simply charming music he’s made, and it’s something he’s needed for a while.
“Charm” here isn’t quite the same thing Kelly was alluding to at the top of “Step in the Name of Love (Remix),” from 2003’s Chocolate Factory, when he fluidly announced, “It’s the Pied Piper of R&B, y’all,” over a heavenly stepper’s groove. It was a shocking comparison coming from a man freshly accused of statutory rape (thanks to a video of the singer allegedly having sex with, and urinating on, a 14-year-old). He already had a sketchy image courtesy of an alleged annulled marriage to then-15-year-old singer Aaliyah (initially a Kelly protégé)—not to mention some rather raunchy lyrical flights, such as “You remind me of my Jeep/ I want to ride you.” But calling himself a pied piper wasn’t Kelly just not-running from the charge, but flaunting it, a deliberate fuck-you to his accusers.
Once Kelly was acquitted of the charges, he seemed to have decided to play up the “crazy” part of his persona. Hence the 80,000-or-so-part “Trapped in the Closet” series, which is only funny for a little while. Next week, his memoir comes out, titled Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me. Did you expect the man who repeated “bounce” ten times in “Ignition (Remix)” and called it a bridge—and got away with it—to go with “My Life and Times” or something?
There’s something laborious about all of this, as if Kelly doesn’t trust that anyone will take him seriously anymore and has decided to forestall being made a figure of fun by doing it himself. (Either that, or he really thinks “sexosaurus” should be a legitimate term. You never know.) It clearly pays off in hype and, given the popularity of the “Trapped” videos, dollars.
But the scandals, the crazy, it all crumbles next to the ’60s-soul-inspired Love Letter and the more ’70s-disco Write Me Back. These two most recent efforts serve as proof of Kelly’s secure place in the R&B pantheon. He’s seldom sounded like he’s had as much fun singing as on these albums. Even when Kelly is being funny—as on “Believe That It’s So,” when he twists the words “merry-go-round” through Auto-tune till they resemble a mangled cat yowl—there’s a lightness of touch here that had grown very rare indeed on his music.
And on both albums he’s so recognizably R. Kelly that he can imitate other singers flat-out and still sound like no one but himself, as on Write’s stepper’s-special “Feelin’ Single,” or the ballad “Clipped Wings,” both of which shamelessly ape the Michael Jackson of Thriller and Off the Wall, respectively. “Believe That It’s So,” meantime, is straight-up prime-era Stevie Wonder, before it segues into another airy stepper’s groove. That kind of explicit dot-connecting is the draw of modern retro, and Kelly knows it.
But mostly he just sounds like he thinks it would sound great. He’s right.