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Music Review: Abebe on Write Me Back and the Multifaceted R. Kelly

Singer R. Kelly performs onstage at FOX's 'The X Factor' Top 3 Live Performance Show on December 21, 2011 in Hollywood, California. THE X FACTOR Finale airs Wed., Dec. 21 and Thurs., Dec. 22 on FOX.
Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX

Robert Kelly — Chicago institution, “Pied Piper of R&B,” formally acquitted of ignoble charges nobody’s forgotten — has a new record out this week. It’s a collection of generally retro soul numbers, and it’s called Write Me Back, because it’s the sequel and bookend to his last collection of retro soul numbers, Love Letter: There’s the same well-staged nostalgia, vocal showmanship, and cheery reverence for the classics, like an electrified version of those public-television concerts where the surviving members of Motown groups cycle across the stage to sing their hits. This is good territory for Kelly, who is a killer entertainer and quite nearly a walking museum of R&B vocal history; he slides so naturally into different voices that you’re occasionally tempted to check the album for guest credits.

Love Letter, released around the end of 2010, hewed to the real R&B bedrock of the sixties and felt like it was as much about music itself as anything else: Kelly brought out his well-worn and uncanny imitation of Sam Cooke, clenched his fists and wailed like Percy Sledge, announced that he wanted to bring love songs back to the radio. Write Me Back wanders more widely through time, from weird bobby-soxer and rock-and-roll pastiche to Smokey Robinson impressions to ballads that could have come from early in Kelly’s own career. But it follows through on the love thing, in nearly every song: There’s love as inspiration and redemption, love as strangled by manipulative men or undercommitted women, love as universal party, love as rotted from the inside by apathy or envy. It’s practically a love prism. And its best moments revolve around high-stepping, lost-in-love seventies disco-ball sounds; there’s all the frictionless glide and delicacy, all the strings and horns caressing around the margins, of late-seventies Philly soul greats and Quincy Jones productions.(Check the single, “Share My Love” — or, even better, “Believe That’s So,” which starts off in Stevie Wonder–land, then mutates, right around its three-minute mark, into an immaculately produced roller-skating bump-and-clap number.) This is even better territory. On Love Letter, Kelly sounded like a deft professional presiding over what could have been a stage revue — not always a flattering match for the raw-and-dusty radio sounds he was looking to conjure. If you’re going to listen to well-done pastiche, it might as well be this lavish, luscious sort, a run through music that was full of plush, expansive glitter and slick stagecraft in the first place.

Some of you, of course, might be waiting for Kelly to wind up this run of nostalgia and get back to inventing our weird and lascivious future. Check back in the fall: His next LP is scheduled to bear the title Black Panties. What strikes me at the moment, though, is just how well Kelly’s career has avoided what I consider one of the more irritating tropes of pop music: the one where artists cultivate the notion that they aren’t just multifaceted human beings, but might in fact have separate and distinct personas, perhaps alter egos with special names, these vastly different characters inside them that are, conveniently enough, best expressed by releasing expensive double albums, or two separate albums in the same week, or convoluted concept records about the struggle between one personality and the other. You know the type: One side of me is rough and street, the other slick and upscale; one side of me is an everyday woman, the other a superheroically fierce fantasy character.

Granted, the game of selling pop music is tough, and brand-based, and it doesn’t exactly leave artists a ton of room to be multifaceted human beings without constantly signposting precisely which facet is for sale at any given moment. But it’s worth noting that Kelly, more than most any star I can think of, has managed to keep himself fascinating partly by not bothering with any such distinctions. He roves across a smooth spectrum from inspirational Cooke-voice singles to bump-and-grind come-ons about crotches and weed. Each of those modes fills the others with a little strangeness and depth, until his sex fantasies sound a little like gospel and his earnest gospel sounds a little freaky. He’s been adopted as a favorite by all sorts of listeners, and if that number includes the kind of goony Internet denizens who mostly like to giggle at interesting things, this is surely part of why: All these things are the same guy, and the same creative imagination, and they all have the exact same level of craft, seriousness, and investment to them. Why wouldn’t he contain multitudes? It sets him up to do things musicians with stricter brand management couldn’t dream of. There were a lot of reasons people marveled at “Trapped in the Closet,” his soap-opera-in-song — its endless tangle of guns and infidelities expands to include a well-hung little-person stripper — but one key is that, like most soaps, it is simultaneously bonkers and earnest, and thoroughly comfortable with that.

Which means Write Me Back and the much-anticipated Black Panties might not ultimately be as different as some — gigglers especially — would like to imagine. It also means that Write Me Back contains plenty more than cheery evocations of sounds we all already love. The churchy exhortations about the redemptive power of love? Those feel real and deep and not at all perfunctory, as do the songs about love’s complications. “Feeling Single” gets a terrific handle on that liminal sense of having checked out of a relationship and started looking around for escape routes. “Believe in Me,” in which a man asks for support and patience as he begins what sounds like a prison stint, has real verve and passion; “Green Light,” in which a man comes sniffing around, offering to provide what an absent boyfriend can’t, has real innocence, the rare sound of a man begging to make someone happy and coming off like his intentions are terrific. Kelly performs the whole set with an ease that’s fun to hear, breaking out a showbiz grin and mugging for the microphones as necessary, nailing each voice and narrative the way a guy who’s been practicing them all since busking on Chicago trains in the eighties probably should. There are duds, like “Party Jumpin’,” but it’s not for lack of commitment on his part. He comes at every idea like an impassioned pro, and whether that idea is making people melt, grind, or titter in disbelief, it’s usually his ardor that’s having that effect.

Music Review: Abebe on R. Kelly’s Write Me Back