The most obvious way to explain R. Kelly’s new album, Love Letter, is to say that it’s making nice. Extremely nice. When you’re widely believed to have videotaped yourself urinating on a 14-year-old girl, it’s incumbent upon you to be nice. So Love Letter behaves about the way an album might behave if it’s new girlfriend’s grandmother were coming by after church for tea. “Please, come in,” it says. “Have a seat. No, the good seat, please. Do you need a pillow? Cream and sugar? Let me put on some music. Ahh, Marvin Gaye. Percy Sledge. That’s good stuff. Those were simpler times, weren’t they? Dignified, inspirational times. Back then you didn’t hear about anybody peeing on anybody. They didn’t have the technology, you understand. They didn’t have the special effects to fake a video and frame somebody like that. Although let’s not forget how Sam Cooke died
And before long Kelly is down on his knees, fists clenched, singing songs about begging for forgiveness, just wanting some lady to come back, just wanting to bring nice old love songs back to the radio. Which you have to admit is a neat, if somewhat transparent, metaphor: He gets to sing the quaint, nostalgic old soul he’s so good at, while sounding vaguely contrite about something or other that’s never specifically named.
He really is good at singing that stuff. I like a bonkers R. Kelly sex jam as much as the next person, but there are times I get more attached to his corny inspirational numbers and eerily precise Sam Cooke impressions. As a teenager, he sang by the trains in Chicago, and I assume every one of his soul-legend imitations was honed entertaining passersby. On Love Letter it almost doesn’t matter that the backing tracks are chintzy, featureless re-creations of sounds from old records — it just leaves them sounding like a live band you’d hear in a restaurant, or the music a singer might play on a boombox while showing off his voice in the park. The focus is on the guy with the mike who’s trying to entertain you, and he’s working hard on that. He knows he can sing, and he can always make himself useful singing songs that are the audio equivalent of buying flowers.
What makes the album annoying is that Kelly’s “love letter” is directed at two things: (a) the great history of soul singing that makes us all feel warm and fuzzy inside, and (b) the alleged capacity of women to forgive men for all failures, so long as a little knee-bending and charm is involved. The album actually begins a cappella: “Dear ladies, dear ladies … This album is dedicated to the girls who stood beside me.” One single, “When a Woman Loves,” flips the concept of “When a Man Loves a Woman” around into what’s supposed to be an ode to the depth and sureness of a lady’s devotion. “She took me back,” he sings, “after I broke her heart about a thousand times. She gave her life to me.”
And probably made him a sandwich afterward! This album is presumably meant to involve R. Kelly being polite and non-bonkers for a moment, but there’s only so much it can manage. Grandma shakes her head, sips her tea, and asks him to get back down on his knees and sing that nice one about the radio again.