There was a time when R. Kelly could be trusted to deliver songs that appealed to our most basic instincts (bumping, grinding, hanging out in the hotel lobby after the after party, etc.). With 2010’s fantastic, widely overlooked “Love Letter,” though, Kells traded in some of the unhinged magnetism of his songs about sex and scandal–as well any effort to engage with hip-hop–opting instead for a more mature emotional palette and a classic soul sound.
The controversial Chicagoan’s latest album, “Write Me Back,” continues in the vein of “Love Letter,” with throwback production that mostly references the early ’70s soul of artists like Marvin Gaye and Barry White. Kelly is an adept producer, and his treatment of these influences generally sounds great. Considering this is a guy who once recorded (among others) a song called “Sex Planet”, he expertly handles the subtlety of singles and clear standouts “Feelin’ Single” and “Share My Love,” particularly on the latter’s winking encouragement to “populate.”
Frequently, however, “Write Me Back” is undermined by grating melodies on songs like “Believe in Me” and awkward choices like the early rock n’ roll sound of “All Rounds on Me.” “When a Man Lies”, another highlight, is the closest the album comes to traditional R. Kelly territory, and it’s a nice reminder: While he can mine the classics to create good material, R. Kelly has his own share of classics built around his unique sensationalism. It might be fun to revisit those some time, too.