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Rosen on R. Kelly’s Black Panties: The King of R&B Reclaims His Turf

R Kelly performs at James L Knight Center on October 17, 2013 in Miami, Florida.

It’s just not true that “Every boy, every girl, every child around the world/From the nineties up until today was made off me,” as R. Kelly suggests on his twelfth solo studio album, Black Panties. Statistically speaking, the claim is far-fetched. I personally know of one child whose conception was soundtracked by Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin; the percentage must be further adjusted to account for Sade. And think of Fairfield County, Connecticut: High school classrooms in Greenwich, New Canaan, and Westport would be empty, surely, if not for Dave Matthews’s “Crash Into Me.” Still, the idea that R. Kelly is responsible for every child born in the last two decades, either by siring them himself or by providing the sonic aphrodisiac, feels true, is poetically true — and poetry, after all, is the realm in which Kelly operates. Consider another Black Panties lyric: “Make her love come down till I drown that pussy/And I take my time in it, that's the scenic route/Sex Trainer, I work pussy out.”

Those lines come from “Marry the Pussy,” the song on Black Panties most likely to earn a spot on the great celestial R. Kelly mixtape. The classic Kelly mode works like this: come up with an absurd sexual metaphor; stretch the metaphor as far as it will go, and then stretch it further; and do it all in a high-earnest ardent Love Man tone that betrays no irony, no hint that you’re in on the joke or that there’s a joke to be in on. Thus, in “Marry the Pussy,” Kelly drops to one knee and proposes marriage to a vagina. “Would you marry me, pussy? Would ya?” he coos. And you thought romance was dead.

Black Panties is a so-so R. Kelly album; it doesn’t quite stack up against his best work. As illustrations of the Kellysian pathetic fallacy go, “Marry the Pussy” has nothing on “The Zoo” (“Girl, I got you so wet/It’s like a rainforest/Like Jurassic Park/Except I'm your sexasaurus”), from the great 2007 album Double Up. The most sonically bracing moments on Black Panties — the stark trap-pop ballad “Spend That,” the plush “All the Way,” a duet with Kelly Rowland — lag well behind Kelly’s most inventive stuff, like “Trapped in the Closet” (2005) and, of course, “Ignition (Remix)” (2003), which might well be the most delightful three minutes in twenty-first-century pop.

In short, Black Panties feels a bit tossed off, though not in a bad way: It’s got an appealing breeziness. Kelly doesn’t seem to have been trying to make a masterpiece, anyway. He had other agendas — chiefly, to reclaim his turf. On his previous two albums, Kelly has looked backwards. Love Letter (2010) and Write Me Back (2012) were retro-soul excursions, which Kelly may have made simply to prove to the legions of R&B revivalists that he could whip them at their own sport. (If so: gamesetmatch.) He may also have felt the need to turn down the temperature in the boudoir, in the aftermath of his 2008 acquittal on child pornography charges.

In any case, on Black Panties, Kelly has Windexed the ceiling mirror and set the oscillating Spanish Fly atomizer on turbo: The sexasaurus is back, and he’s got scores to settle as well as pussies to wed. Over the past few years, a new brigade of soul Lotharios have oozed onto the scene. Kelly makes no secret of his feelings about this turn of events. In “Shut Up,” he dismisses the upstarts: “Now, seriously/After all these hits and melodies and memories/You compare me to someone else?/O-M-G.”

You can’t blame him for snickering. No offense to Miguel, The-Dream, Jeremih, et al. — it’s no competition. Kelly is a true original, an eccentric, a gonzo auteur. He’s one of just a few current stars who can boast that he’s changed music. He overhauled Casanova R&B by introducing outrageous comedy, by parodying pop's most self-parodying genre: accentuating the “Imma freak you, girl” clichés until the ridiculous turned sublime. Nu-R&B stars have Xeroxed his production — the dripping faucet beat in “Trapped in the Closet” is the template for countless records since — but few have tried to compete in the realm of smutty-talk, or yuks. In fact, many R&B tyros have veered away from pleasure altogether, ratcheting up the sexual angst. And when The-Dream decided to do a Kelly-style sex farce, he wrote a song called “Kelly’s 12 Play,” about fucking to an R. Kelly record.

Kelly has something else on the Love Man competition: virtuosity. He’s a five-tool all-star; he sings, writes, and performs circles around just about everyone. You can hear those skills on Black Panties: in the lithe melodies of “Genius” and “Right Back,” and, throughout, in Kelly’s sleek, octave-hurdling vocals. In short, Black Panties isn’t a great record, but it makes delectable listening, which is as it should be when your record is all about shtuping. A pleasurable sex album, of course, is by definition a utilitarian sex album: Babies will be made to it. Maybe even in Connecticut.

Photo: Vallery Jean/FilmMagic