With 2010’s Love Letter, R. Kelly dove headfirst into soul music of the ’50s and ’60s. It was a weird turn for a guy who made his name singing about hotel after-parties and thongs, but it worked. The record went gold and received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, most of which praised Kelly’s singing and songwriting. Plus, given Kelly’s legal troubles at the time, it took a little of the heat off the singer’s personal life.
R. Kelly’s new record, Write Me Back, once again treads those soulful boards, though it moves the timeline up a few years, sounding more Teddy Pendergrass than Otis Redding. It’s a solid, sensible move, one that makes for some charming songs, albeit tame ones by R. Kelly’s recent standards. These are songs suitable for church-going moms and backyard family reunions. Even the most stoic aunt wouldn’t object to a song like “Share My Love,” which, while ostensibly about sex, uses words like “populate” rather than other, seedier options.
When R. Kelly’s not singing about sex—or “populating,” as it were—he’s singing about love. As always, his messages aren’t subtle or all that romantic, but they’re effective. Kelly’s strength has never been epic metaphor or great, poetic lyrics. Instead, he thrives on simplicity, a little bit of humor, and the occasional clever turn of phrase. Nothing’s changed on Write Me Back. On “Believe In Me,” he—shocker—wants his woman to believe in him. “When A Man Lies” is about—duh—a man who lies to his lover, killing “every reason she ever had for loving him.” “Lady Sunday” is full of awkward rhymes (“better” and “weather,” for one), but R. Kelly’s delivery is so silky smooth that even the clunkiest couplets swing.
There are some duds on Write Me Back. The hideous “Party Jumpin’” sounds like it was yanked straight out of High School Musical: The “Let’s Take Shots” Edition. “Believe In Me” is a solid ballad, but sounds out of place on this record. It’s too modern, too sharp. “Clipped Wings,” on the other hand, sounds almost too dated, like a deep cut off a Boyz II Men record from the early ’90s. When Kelly hits, though, like on “Share My Love” or “Feelin’ Single,” he hits hard. Like “Step In The Name Of Love,” off the singer’s 2003 album Chocolate Factory, these are happy, fun songs, perfect for sing-alongs and end-of-concert balloon drops, mini-celebrations of life and love.
Write Me Back isn’t groundbreaking, even for Kelly, but the territory it does cover is glossy and confetti-strewn. While it’s certainly more entertaining, in a musical car-crash sense, for the wacked-out Kelly to churn out record after record of down-and-dirty club grinders and chapters of Trapped In The Closet—13 of which are due out later this year—Write Me Back offers his accomplished take on classic, traditional R&B, and that’s more than enough for now.