R Kelly is, by all accounts, capable of being a not very nice person. The court records show that. But where he differs from the utterly risible Chris Brown is that Kelly is, and we do not use this word lightly, a genius.
A killer producer, an amazing singer and, most of all, the most insane songwriter of his generation, only R Kelly could have created the bizarre hip-hopera of Trapped In The Closet. Only R Kelly could create a song as utterly unhinged as Real Talk. Praise be to the gods of soul music and liquour that R Kelly is on form for his new record, Write Me Back.
The record has a really ’70s mood and that’s set straight out of the gate with Love Is, essentially what Barry White would have sounded like if he’d been brought up in a world with Tumblr, Facebook and ironic Twitter updates. With a pulsing disco backing, Kelly brings the smooth lover man persona in full force with plenty of monologuing jutting up against his typically soulful vocals: “If you feel like…I feel! Tonight! Look at your lover and recite these words…” Preach brother, preach.
Feelin’ Single keeps the trend going with a really mid-’70s Motown bass line in full effect. This is catchy R&B as it should be, an example of real craft – tight instrumentation matched with heavenly harmonies and hooks that will latch into your head. It’s that school disco school dance feeling retooled for grown ups. The fact is R Kelly remains a master of the slow jam.
Lazy Sunday, When A Man Lies and Clipped Wings make up a trio of smooth love songs with the latter taking the mood into a darker, introspective place with fragile piano, close harmonies and Kelly sounding truly bruised: “Oh baby, I never meant to clip your wings, now I’m wishing you could fly right back to me…” Believe That It’s So pulls off a classic R Kelly trick of melding the religious and the carnal in one song. Vaguely tropical bongos bump along in the background while a choir of R Kelly’s sing praise for the subject of the song. It’s ridiculously relaxing and uplifting – something a lot of current R&B fails to achieve.
The piano and production on Fool For You almost feels as if Kelly is covering a long lost Jackson 5 classic. It emphasises an interesting quality to Write Me Back, a sense that this is not a record of 2012 but of some sort of soul music continuity that stretches way back beyond Berry Gordy’s first idle thoughts about setting up a company. R Kelly further cements himself here as one of those artists that will be long remembered.
All Rounds On Me finds Kelly playing with his Stevie Wonder side crossed with some Little Richard. There’s an a cappella opening followed by a startlingly ’60s organ figure, matched by an equally retro guitar line and ‘shoop shoop’ backing vocals. See Bruno Mars, this is how you do nostalgia with a modern twist, you grotesque little pop hobbit.
The record is not without its dull moments. Believe In Me feels slightly motivational-R&B-jam-by-numbers and Green Light brings the pace down. Luckily, Party Jumpin’ brings some of that Ignition spirit to the record with Kelly turning into nightclub preachers with claps behind him and marshalling a battalion of horns for a slab of celebratory pop music. If anyone knows how to write pop songs about bloody good parties, it’s R Kelly.
Share My Love again brings that ’70s feeling with trebly guitars and a pulsating bass line. By this point, it’s undeniable that Kelly was flicking through his favourite hits of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s when he was writing this record. Share My Love is another track that could easily have been gifted to Isaac Hayes or Barry White.
Beautiful In This Mirror is another beautifully constructed slow jam which will inevitably appeal to the producers of Glee, allowing them to have a montage of characters wistfully looking at themselves in mirrors. You Are My World is another song that feels like it could have been written for someone else. Despite Kelly’s excellent and soulful performance, the twitchy ballad screams Michael Jackson, from the initial yelps onward.
Fallin’ From The Sky is another slightly maudlin ballad which could perhaps have been cut from the record but it is just another speed bump on the road to soul salvation offered by Write Me Back. One Step Closer is Kelly at his seductive best with sparse drum machine, slight strings and classic gentle piano almost hiding the filthiness of his lyrics. It’s a great way to close a great record.
Write Me Back won’t totally please R Kelly fans who crave the silly pleasures of Trapped In The Closet, but it is without doubt an excellent record. It once again shows that despite his personal ups and downs, Kelly is a songwriting master and an utterly compelling performer.