Black Panties, by R. Kelly
When in doubt, sex it up. R. Kelly gets back to the (slow) grind on Black Panties, a lavish and almost entirely single-minded album that returns him to what’s probably his best-known and definitely his most widely parodied mode.
After the kindly, uplifting, organic-sounding neo-soul love songs of his two most recent albums — Love Letter in 2010 and the more disco-tinged Write Me Back in 2012 — Kelly has returned to the leisurely, explicit come-ons that established his persona on his 1993 debut solo album, 12 Play. He’s also back in his more recent robo-R&B realm of electronic keyboards, programmed drums and the buzzing fringe of Auto-Tune on his voice.
His facility is undiminished. Only Prince — someone Kelly has obviously studied — can match him in creating oozing, undulating motion at tempos that would leave other singers stuck like dinosaurs in a tarpit. (He has his own technique for maintaining that motion: vocal lines that hop and skip and slide as they subdivide the beat.) Each song on this album is a gleaming overdubbed edifice of, for instance, creamy vocal harmonies (Legs Shakin’), pearly keyboard lines over sparse drums (Genius) or electronic stutters of voice and artificial percussion (My Story). Even through the welter of effects, Kelly’s voice holds some humanity: a streak of melancholy and a hint of gospelly aspiration.
But in choosing to do a 21st-century sequel to 12 Play, Kelly has deliberately narrowed his possibilities. Songs like Cookie, Crazy Sex and Legs Shakin’ start off as promises of highly skilled sexual attentions, but end up as to-do lists. The album isn’t just focused on lascivious promises of sex; it’s focused on strip-club sex. Pole dancing figures in more than one song; so does the assumption that what all women want besides his prowess is conspicuous consumption. Throw This Money tells a nameless stripper, “I just want to sip my drink, lay back and look at you,” though he makes a move later on; throwing money is just the start of the spree in Spend That. Even a song that briefly considers a woman’s emotional needs, You Deserve Better, has him vowing to “bring you wealth” and turns into a catalog of luxury perks.
This shallow persona isn’t the R. Kelly who found the tension and pain of infidelity in Down Low (Nobody Has to Know) in 1995, or who has concocted the wildly complicated polysexual roundelay and rap opera Trapped in the Closet or who seized on quasi-gospel inspiration in 1996 for I Believe I Can Fly. The musician is there, but so is the career plotter.
With his sense of market timing — Write Me Back was a year ahead of Daft Punk’s disco revival — Kelly has stepped away from dance music, leaving it to his recent duet partner, Lady Gaga. And he has picked up on this year’s increasingly porn-flavored pop promotion, making him both up-to-the-minute and back to his foundations.
Kelly knows exactly what he’s doing. The odd song out on Black Panties is Shut Up, which he released online in 2011 after he had surgery on his vocal cords. His voice is less gimmicked, the keyboard chords are gospel and the vocals have the hip-hop flow of Trapped in the Closet, as Kelly attacks naysayers and shows he can sing again. He also flaunts another achievement: “Let’s be honest, how many babies been made off me?” he intones. For Black Panties, he has decided that slow-groove baby-making music is all his audience wants. That’s not true.