Here’s the thing about R. Kelly: At this point, he has nothing left to prove to anyone. Except, clearly, himself, which is why this 46-year-old self-described “Pied Piper of R&B,” who’s sold a cool 38.5 million albums since 1991, just released his latest, Black Panties. Yep, Black Panties. It’s a good bet that after releasing two albums of throwback, Motown-inspired music – 2010’s Love Letter and 2012’s Write Me Back – Kelly felt the need to get back to basics. In R. Kelly’s world, this involves being as horny as possible all the time and letting people know.
Unfortunately, “basic” is the best way to describe most of this album. For an artist with such a unique, vibrant persona, Kelly spends most of Panties trying to blend in. A lot of these beats sound like someone made a playlist of 2011 Billboard hits and then tried to recreate those songs from memory in Pro Tools.
“My Story,” the album’s first single, is a snoozefest of a song that seems to exist entirely to cater to the current stop-start vocal staccato trend in hip hop. The fact that it features 2 Chainz, who is basically 2013’s answer to Lil’ Jon, should be warning enough. “Cookie” sounds almost menacing, which is a shame when you consider the song is a comparison between oral sex and eating Oreos. The track could really have been something amazing. Instead, we get an R. Kelly who seems to prefer to sit on top of his throne and boast to anyone who might walk by. It’s like he’s taking notes from Jay-Z.
What else? The phrase “turn up” is dropped in multiple songs. Auto Tune is everywhere, which is a) annoying, and b) really sad when you consider the technical chops Robert has.
That’s not to say there aren’t nice moments. “Genius” is topnotch R. Kelly, as strings and gentle piano underscore pretty to-the-point lyrics that still manage to come across as sweet and sincere (it’s all in the delivery). I was half-expecting Drake to pop in somewhere and add his Sensitive R&B Seal Of Approval. “Marry The Pussy” achieves a similar earnestness, although R. Kelly has played this card before much, much better in “Feeling On Yo’ Booty.”
Ultimately, R. Kelly couldn’t give any less shits about what any of his critics have to say, and album closer “Shut Up” drives this point home with gospel piano and a simple, repeated refrain. When R. Kelly tells you it’s “hard for [him] to be strong” in the face of all the haters, it comes across as honest. As we approach 2014, this is what we need from Kelly. Here’s hoping the next album has more real talk.