Thursday, July 12, 2012

album review: 'write me back' by r. kelly

Short version: it's good but just shy of great. R. Kelly is always a compelling performer, but it feels like he was on autopilot for this album, and it doesn't quite strike the same gold its predecessor did. Give it a listen, but I'd check out his 2010 album 'Love Letter' first.

It's always interesting to speculate on the questionable sanity of pop artists.

For some people, it's easy. Despite Katy Perry's questionable choices in men, it's obvious from press interviews that's she's quite sane. Jay-Z, likewise, is very much a sane musician and businessman. Same with Usher, and his protege Justin Bieber - they're quite rational, all things considered. In fact, I'd argue most pop acts, given their commercial focus, can be deemed quite sane and rational. 

And then, of course, you have the artists who have questionable sanity at best, or to be blunt, can have their mental state summarized as a blend of mixed nuts and batshit. These are the artists who delve into weirdness and strange spectacle without prodding, and whose antics off-stage are often solid proof of their fragile contact with reality. Some artists really straddle the line, and indeed it's tough to gauge the difference between insane talent and genuine insanity (that'd be your Lady Gaga and Ke$ha analogues), so often times you have to look to more than just the character they play in their music, but also who they are in real life. 

Let's take Kanye West, for instance. The man is a gifted musical producer with incredible and often strange ideas for his music. But the off-the-wall statements, his bizarre rants on Twitter, the incident at the 2009 VMAs with Taylor Swift, and that incredibly bizarre album sampler/art film Runaway that he somehow wrote, directed, starred in, and funded all by himself - all of these suggest a man with amazing talent, but also that something important was knocked loose in his brain. And I don't even think I need to go into the history of a man like Prince, who has done so many off-beat and weird things with both his music and his personal life that I really don't have time to describe them all. Suffice to say, when you have seriously talented artists who might not have all their marbles in a row, the brand of insanity from their actual lives can bleed into their music, and add a real spice to all of their music. 

And with all the talk of insanity, I have to talk about R. Kelly.

Make no mistake about this, I'm a big fan of this guy. The man has an incredible voice, extremely deft lyrics, and a unique creative vision for R&B you don't often see. More importantly, he's also got a great sense of history (more on this later), his beats and music drawn from the decades of R&B legends who came before him. And to top it off, he brings fantastic emotion to his songs, investing in them totally, to the point where you can believe when he sings 'The World's Greatest', you can almost buy it. The man is one of the best R&B musicians to sing a note, and the tragedy of the continued complications with his throat surgery is nothing short of tragic.

And he's also completely fucking nuts. There are plenty of examples here - his breakdown on his mega-tour with Jay-Z, which resulted in him getting pepper sprayed (reportedly on Jay-Z's orders), the point when he abandoned a concert in mid-show to go work at a McDonalds, or maybe because he released a twenty-two episode performance art piece that's ultimately about the spread of AIDS in the black community where he voices and sings for every single character (by the way, if you haven't seen Trapped In The Closet, you haven't lived yet - take some time out and watch the whole thing and revel in the utter insanity). He was also accused of doing some horrible things (that I won't link to - it's not relevant here, look it up if you're interested, but I will say I'm reasonably pleased he was acquitted of all charges), but he's also probably one of the few people I could reasonably accept the insanity defense from. 

So it came as no surprise that in 2010, R Kelly decided that he wanted to take R&B in a new, paradoxically old direction with his newest album Love Letter. Instead of devolving into the club sleaze that he'd embraced in his earlier years, R. Kelly instead chose to make an album that was, in fact, a love letter to soul from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It was an album about the many emotions that compliment love, and it was by far the classiest album that was released in 2010, the year when Ke$ha gained prominence. 

And make no mistake, Love Letter is fucking awesome. I love the historical touches and the clear inspirational strokes from Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye. I love that R. Kelly sang about love and sounded sincere and honest. If Usher is the R&B singer you call to write songs about sex, R. Kelly is the guy you call to perform songs about making love. In this, the two are sides to the same coin (incidentally, they also collaborated in 2007 with a song called 'Same Girl', a story duet that's easily one of my favourite songs of the decade). My favourite song from the album is 'Taxi Cab', a bleak noir number where R. Kelly sings about falling in love with a mysterious woman after hooking up in a taxi, and the juxtaposition of R. Kelly's rough delivery with the blend of soul and electric guitar is just fucking magnificent and evidence of the genius in R. Kelly's insane mind.

So when I heard that R. Kelly was making a sequel album to Love Letter, I was psyched. The man always brings a high degree of quality to his music, throws himself into his vocals, and has generally been pretty awesome. Sure, I would have liked a return to more baroque, offbeat weirdness, but even with an older style, it could happen.

It didn't happen. And while I have no problems calling Write Me Back by R. Kelly a good album, I really can't call it a great one. As a sequel to Love Letter, it's a definite disappointment across the board, and while it's leagues better than most comparable albums, there are elements that just don't work here.

First is the instrumentation, because instead of the jazzy soul influences that I liked on Love Letter, we have tunes that sound more like disco than anything. Now that's not a problem - disco doesn't suck nearly as much as some would have you believe - but there really isn't enough innovation on instrumentation or overall energy to make it all that interesting. I found it musically bland, and from a producer like R. Kelly, that is disappointing, considering that if he wanted to draw inspiration from disco, he could have made the album a lot more interesting.

Next is the vocals, and on this matter, I'm going to tred a little lighter - namely because I think the throat surgery really didn't help R. Kelly's voice. It's weaker, quieter, and generally lacks the energy and investment that it once had. In fact, I'd argue he sounds a bit bored on some of the tracks, uninterested in the songs he's singing. I don't know how much of it has to do with his voice not being as strong because of the surgery, or because he just doesn't care as much anymore. Either way, it's disappointing.

And now we get to the songwriting, and like always, I will commend R. Kelly for sticking to a decent album theme. While Love Letter was an album about falling in love, Write Me Back is an album that explores what comes next after the commencement of the relationship, whether it succeeds or fails (more often fails, obviously). It's interesting territory, because outside of country music, we don't tend to see much about this particular side of relationships, and I think R. Kelly explores it well. One of the best songs on the album is 'Clipped Wings', a ballad where R. Kelly feels that his relationship with the girl has caused her to put her dreams on hold, and he feels terrible about that. It's a very different sentiment that you rarely hear in music, and I really liked it. But unfortunately, the rest of the songwriting isn't quite up to the task - in fact, once again, I call it a little bland. There isn't the same energy or interesting turns of phrase that made R. Kelly's songs actually compelling, and I can't help but admit that some of the songs are just filler. 

What I found most telling about this album is how whenever R. Kelly attempts to introduce moments of modernity on the album, he falls flat on his face. The absolute nadir of the album is 'Believe That It's So', a song that attempts to marry R. Kelly's soul instrumentation and singing with a transition to a modern club hip-hop track, complete with Autotune - and it sounds fucking awful. The transition falls completely flat, and really shows stark evidence how much better R. Kelly is suited to soul rather than the tedious wasteland that modern club hip-hop is right now. In fact, the only 'dance' track that works for me on this album is 'Party Jumpin'', a song that I should despise because it completely flies in the face of the tone and style of the album, but it's also the track with the most energy out of all of them. It also draws a lot of influence from Grease (of all things) with a 50s style beat that I found way too damn catchy to dismiss, and also points out the crux of the problem with this album: R. Kelly is best when he has energy and enthusiasm and creativity, even if the song is stupid as all fuck.

And that's pretty much my biggest problem with Write Me Back - it's good, but it also feels bland and tepid and a little by-the-numbers. It feels like R. Kelly didn't try as hard on this album, and it shows. It's not bad - it's miles ahead of most modern R&B - but it's not as great as it could or should be, and that disappoints me. 

Overall, it's pretty good, and I did enjoy enough of it to give it a recommendation. R. Kelly has always been a consistently good performer, and while I've really enjoyed his exploration of classic R&B with his signature flair, I can't help but be a little excited that the journey's coming to a close, and that R. Kelly is planning to contiue his work on his famously weird projects, which includes more episodes of Trapped In The Closet. Definitely a breath of fresh air in a pretty lackluster summer so far.

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