Black Panties (RCA)
2 stars (out of 4)
After two albums of elegant, old-school stepping music, R. Kelly is back doing the raunch. "Black Panties" (RCA) is a musically detailed, sonically rich porn soundtrack, a formula that has helped the singer sell more than 50 million albums worldwide in two decades.
On the excellent "Love Letter" (2010) and the almost-as-good "Write Me Back" (2012), Kelly was on the dancefloor creating music for romance and dancing, a tribute to his late mother's record collection. Now he's back in the bedroom, putting his "taser tongue" to work on the new album's set-up track, "Legs Shakin'." Against cascading harmonies and percussion that suggests fingers snapping and tongues clicking, Kelly provides a female anatomy lesson that turns into a salacious metaphor on "Cookie."
Kelly is operating in a long, blue tradition in R&B, where explicit songs such as Hank Ballard and the Midnighters' "Work With Me, Annie" and "Annie Had a Baby," along with Etta James' answer song, "The Wallflower" (aka "Roll With Me, Henry"), scandalized the '50s. Since then, singers such as Millie Jackson, Marvin Sease, Prince and Marvin Gaye, among others, have all rhapsodized about their runaway libidos (though among these performers only Kelly has faced trial on child pornography charges; he was exonerated in 2008).
To his hardcore fans – and few artists of the last 20 years elicit such ardent devotion in concert – Kelly is best when he is at his most absurd, comical and over-the-top. The centerpiece of "Black Panties" is a track with an unprintable title in which the singer expresses his ardent desire to marry a woman's reproductive organ. It's expertly orchestrated; acoustic guitar, harp-like tones, at least three distinct, interlocking vocal tracks, the barest hint of percussion – all in service of a crude come-on.
By now, most people have their mind made up on Kelly's music, and "Black Panties" will do little to change their views. There are signs of slippage, as a new wave of R&B and hip-hop artists such as the Weeknd, Miguel and Drake are digging into the psychodrama of sex, but often taking it several layers deeper. Kelly's electronically distorted vows on "You Deserve Better" suggest how much influence he's had on these relative newcomers, and vice-versa.
In "Shut Up," he tries to reclaim his turf. Kelly extols his longevity and delivers another one of those outrageous lines that has come to define him, this time offering a career summary. Over a barely-there keyboard melody and lush backing harmonies, he asks, "No offense to the other artists, but c'mon, doll, let's be honest, how many babies been made off me?" A few seconds later, he answers his own question: "Every boy, every girl, every child around the world/From the '90s, up until today, was made off me."
R. Kelly, father figure? Sometimes, the jokes go too far.