Since his child-pornography scandal, R. Kelly's output has been characterized by lunatic ambition and ambitious lunacy. His latest, Double Up, doesn't boast an overarching concept as ambitiously insane as the 2004 gospel/ecstatic-pop double CD Happy People/U Saved Me or his Trapped In The Closet multimedia serial, but it isn't exactly lacking in craziness or ambition. The vitriolic, agitatedly casual tongue-lashing "Real Talk" barely even pretends to be a song, let alone a pop song. Like Trapped In The Closet, "Real Talk" deviates from the pop template until it's almost avant-garde.
Then there are the whiplash-inducing tonal shifts of the album's last three tracks, with the deliriously, tellingly titled "Sex Planet" leading to the Virginia Tech tribute track "Rise Up" (the latest, if not greatest, from the R. Kelly generic uplift factory) and an unexpectedly infectious bonus track that doubles as a transparent plug for R. Kelly ringtones. Here, Kelly establishes himself as the softcore Tyler Perry of pop music, a shameless, plain-talking populist merchant of kitchen-sink hood melodrama who's never encountered a groaning cliché or cheesy plot twist he didn't embrace.
But where Perry's films feel amateurish, Kelly routinely cooks up killer grooves that make his exuberantly stupid lyrics and hackneyed song concepts seem strangely charming. Double Up boasts singers and rappers on half the tracks, but Kelly's warped sensibility reigns throughout. On the wonderfully cheesy story-song "Same Girl," Kelly reduces Usher, one of his biggest rivals, to a complacent doppelgänger: It's a measure of Kelly's influence that the male artists he writes for often borrow his delivery as well as his lyrics. Double Up boasts its share of filler, and it seldom strays from self-parody. But that's probably because Kelly realizes, deep down, that he's at his very best when he's at his very worst.