If there weren’t a more frustratingly gifted musical talent than R. Kelly, you would have to make them up. Yes, even his detractors have to admit that the Chicago-born songwriter, producer, musician and vocalist has been responsible for some of R&B’s most effortlessly infectious anthems of his era since arriving on the scene in 1992 as a member of Public Announcement. At his best, Kelly displays the kind of breathtaking range that most artists would gladly sell their souls for (“I Believe I Can Fly,” “Ignition,” “When A Woman’s Fed Up,” “Feelin’ On Yo Booty,” and “Step In The Name of Love”). But at his worst, he has repeatedly fumbled the well-earned baton passed down by Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Al Green, recording some of the genre’s most absurd, juvenile moments (“I Like The Crotch On You,” “You Remind Me of Something,” “Trapped In The Closet,” “The Zoo,” “Sex Planet,” we can be here all night folks…).
From the jump, R. Kelly’s ninth-studio album, Untitled, kicks off in the latter head-shaking territory. The uninspired “Crazy Night” goes stale before even hitting the one-minute mark, as the 42-year-old resorts to using the thoroughly worn out Auto-Tune playbook. On the Kellz-by-number mid-tempo track “Exit,” the singer goes from apologizing for coming on too strong at the club (“Now baby girl if that’s your man…I really didn’t mean no harm.”) to dropping such swooning romantic overtures as “I even got a stripper pole.” And “Text Me” joins the ranks of 1,001 other songs about sexting, as he promises one lucky lady to “hit it 7 to 11.”
Fortunately, when the horniest man in rhythm and blues decides to get down to serious business, the results are nothing short of stellar. In anyone else’s mortal hands, the gospel-meets-secular fervor of “Religious,” complete with its ’80s-era Prince Linn-drums and brazen lines like “Got a nigga waking up extra early on Sunday,” would have been a disaster. But Kelly’s sincerity and underrated skill as a top-notch vocal arranger makes you a believer. Elsewhere, the throwback keyboard groove “Whole Lotta Kisses” sounds like it was recorded during the start of the 12-Play sessions, while “Be My #2” gives an unexpected nod to Kelly’s Chi-Town house music roots. But it’s the heartbreaking, piano-paced “Elsewhere” that underlines just how much of today’s R&B landscape needs R. Kelly. “She don’t think it’s worth a fight… she won’t try,” he mourns of a doomed romance. It’s the kind of bare-bones, grown-man vulnerability that you don’t get from current hit maker The-Dream, who along with Keri Hilson, Robin Thicke, Tyrese Gibson and a savvy list of lesser-name producers (Jack Splash, Christopher ‘Deep’ Henderson, Eric Dawkins & Antonio Dixon) are recruited to add a little sheen to Kellz’s act. It’s proof that whenever Kelly leaves behind childish things, he lives up to his billing as R&B’s messiah. —Keith Murphy