Tuesday, December 10, 2013

album review: 'black panties' by r. kelly

Here's a part of my musical philosophy that ends up being more complicated than it sounds: when it comes to music, I need to buy into the romance projected by the artist. I can look past a lot of corny lines and ridiculous lyrics if I can buy into the persona of the performer, and when that persona fractures, it's incredibly difficult to repair. It's one of the reasons why I, like so many critics, find it hard to buy into the romantic sentiments of Chris Brown (or in my case, John Mayer). 

And I can imagine that many fans of modern R&B legend R. Kelly probably felt the same way around the mid-2000s. Sure, his first three albums were damn near untouchable, but in the early 2000s, something went wrong. Maybe it was the criminal allegations, maybe it was the substandard material (although Ignition (Remix) is untouchable), or maybe it was because something got knocked loose in R. Kelly's brain (see his albums with Jay-Z, the disastrous subsequent tour, and all of Trapped In The Closet), but suddenly it got a lot harder to buy into any romance R. Kelly was proposing, especially considering the heavy sexual content in his lyrics. 

And yet things changed for the better in late 2010 when R. Kelly released Love Letter. It was a richly orchestrated homage to early soul and R&B with enough of a modern touch not to feel like a throwback, and it was excellent, mostly because it traded explicit sexuality for sensuality, and it proved to be a great fit for R. Kelly's jawdropping vocals. He followed it up in 2012 with Write Me Back, which moved forward in time to reference the disco era of the mid-to-late 70s, but it also lost a lot of unique flavour in the transition - the album might have been good, but it wasn't great.

But it was worrying when R. Kelly announced a return to his modern R&B roots with his new album Black Panties - mostly because the worst songs on Write Me Back were those that went in a modern direction. And while there isn't anything wrong with going back to your roots, R. Kelly has tread this ground so many times I honestly didn't think there was anything new or interesting he could bring to the table. Was I wrong?

...well, not entirely. Don't get me wrong, Black Panties is far from R. Kelly's worst album (that dubious honour goes his records in the mid-to-late 2000s), but it's not his best by a long shot. Sure, it might be decent, but it's not the kind of record that gets me excited about R. Kelly, and it's not one that's going to stick in the memory in a month or two, which is disappointing to say the least.

Okay, so let's start with R. Kelly himself, and honestly, he's always been the best part of every album he's on. Confident, sensual, genuinely invested in his material, with boatloads of charisma that have prolonged his career over so many of his imitators, R. Kelly steps onto this record with the personality and flair most people have come to love. And unlike Write Me Back, his voice has strengthened enough to hit those blissfully beautiful high notes and falsetto again, and it sounds wonderful. You can definitely tell R. Kelly is invested in making this record work and sound good as much as he can control...

And it's a shame his producers let him down here. The trap-inspired beats and smoothly minimalist R&B jams sound hopelessly generic, and in comparison to the soul and disco touches of previous records, I can't help but feel that the lack of melodies really don't help the presentation, because no memorable hooks materialize to give this album's instrumentation some personality. A bigger problem is the tone - while there's always been something of a slinky darkness to R. Kelly's instrumentation, it's too harsh and imposing on this album, and the pitch-shifted deep voice repeating words continuously doesn't help at all. Finally, I'll repeat something I said when I reviewed Write Me Back: Autotune isn't necessary for R. Kelly, even in his lower range. The man's voice has incredible texture and he's working his ass off to sound intimate and romantic - production that only serves to distance him does not fit well!

Fortunately, the guest stars do a decent bit to pick up the slack, with the highlight actually being Kelly Rowland on 'All The Way'. The song has a playful sensuality and the two performers work off each other incredibly well. Jeezy continues to work hard with his verse on 'Spend That', but the surprise comes from 2 Chainz on 'My Story', mostly because his punchlines land effectively (or because R. Kelly spends his verses trying to imitate 2 Chainz's flow, and maybe that just makes the rapper look better). However, Ludacris' appearance on 'Legs Shakin'' is not great - don't get me wrong, I like Ludacris, but his punchlines were way too silly for a sex song, especially one opening the album.

And here's where we need to talk about lyrics and themes. Now I'll give R. Kelly this: he has always been an R&B songwriter I've liked, because he's witty, he has a gift for interesting punchlines, and his lyrics flow together well. Furthermore, he's always been a fantastic storyteller, injecting his songs with a lot of texture and hidden nuance behind the imaginative worlds he creates. Take a song like 'Taxi Cab' from Love Letter: it's a song about hooking up in a cab, but it inverts in the gender divide in one night stands and plays the emotion damn near perfectly. Or take 'Same Girl', his hilarious duet with Usher that talks about two men falling for the same woman (or do they?).

And with that, Black Panties doesn't seem to have that ambition - in terms of songwriting, it sounds like something R. Kelly could have written twenty years ago. And while I understand the callback to his earlier work, he has grown as an artist since then, and this album doesn't go above and beyond in the songwriting to distinguish it from those earlier works. So okay, Black Panties is just another collection of sex songs, and I'll admit there are moments where R. Kelly's creative wordplay does mesh well with his delivery ('Genius', for example - the lyrics might be standard, but you can buy R. Kelly as a 'sex genius' in the vein of Prince). But on other tracks, this album makes the mistake of sounding sexual without being sexy, like on 'Cookies', which drives the baked good as a symbol for vaginas to the absolute extreme (you will never eat Oreos in the same way again), or in 'Marry The Pussy', which appears to frame the woman in this scenario as only one part of her anatomy - classy.

But it's not just the sex songs that call back to his early work - songs like 'My Story' and 'Right Back' feel like songs aspiring rappers drop on their debut EPs, instead of from an R&B titan in his mid-40s, and they're just jarring. And then there's the final song 'Shut Up', which calls out all of R. Kelly's haters and detractors who questioned his relevance and career - a song that feels about two albums too late. Kells, I'm going to be blunt, you did fall off in the late 2000s - and then you came back with two successful and interesting albums that I enjoyed, and you had a good 2013. Besides, considering your legacy, you should be past the point of calling out your haters - just keep making good music, and they'll fall silent.

So in the end, Black Panties is decent but it's not great, because it calls back to a point in R. Kelly's career that didn't need to be revisited - it's not like we forgot. And while there are a couple decent sex jams on this record, poor production, some ridiculous lyrics, a strange lack of memorable hooks, and a near-abandonment of the crazy-awesome storytelling that has distinguished R. Kelly sucks away a lot of this record's personality. I'm giving this a 6/10, and if you're a hardcore R. Kelly fan, you'll probably enjoy it, but he's done better. And to be honest, I'm a lot more excited about the upcoming new episodes of Trapped In The Closet next year - because those sound amazing.

No comments:

Post a Comment