R’n'B has been getting weirder and hipper over the past couple of years as artists like Frank Ocean, The-Dream and The Weeknd have been pushing the genre into strange, dark, new places. Yet R Kelly, the dominant figure in the genre over the past 20 years and one of the most idiosyncratic and original artists of the era in any genre, has effectively taken himself out of the conversation. Maybe he was worried that all the fans he picked up for his insanely over the top Trapped in the Closet song-set saw him as the joke, not the joker. Maybe he felt he had nothing left to prove. Maybe he’s just been listening to a lot of Barry White. In any case, his new album, Write Me Back, like 2010’s Love Letter, is a collection of retro soul and gospel-influenced songs without a hint of hip-hop influence. It’s hard to know whether to read the change of direction as a detour, a retreat or an act of self-preservation, but taken on its own Write Me Back is an immaculate album of smooth, grown man soul.
The album opens with the buttery disco of ‘Love Is’, an ode to love and monogamy with a chorus of “I believe that love is me and you together for eternity”. After a smooth, spoken intro about the power of love delivered earnestly, the strings swoop in and Kelly starts singing. His voice is as beautiful and powerful as ever and the pleasure of just hearing him sing is enough to get lost in. Kelly is, of course, in complete control and his phrasing is perfect and instantly recognisable as his own. The suave dance vibe rolls into the second song, album highlight ‘Feelin’ Single’, a song about getting out and meeting new women as an act of retribution against the singer’s girl, who has jilted him first. ‘Lady Sunday’, a song of devotion, keeps up the dance vibe while mixing in some gospel elements and lyrics that, in the great R’n'B tradition, conflate romantic and religious themes. ‘When a Man Lies’, a ballad sung in a gospel style, is a gorgeous and mournful admonition of men who lie to keep women in love with them. Kelly gives a particularly heartfelt performance and for the first time, at 45, we can begin to hear the age in his voice in the form of a slight croak, soulful and handsome, that he allows to creep in around the edges. The song is also a perfect example of Kelly’s supreme versatility. Although he’s had only two themes, love and sex, in his career, he manages to find a seemingly infinite number of perspectives on them and sing from those perspectives with utter believability. It’s telling that on this album he’s singing in sympathy of misled women rather than from the perspective of a man who has misled them.
While there are later highlights like mini-suite ‘Believe That It’s So’ which flips mid-song like the original ‘Ignition’, and ‘Green Light,’ a seductive slow-jam that feels like classic ’90s Kelly, Write Me Back is front-loaded. The album’s smooth sound can sometimes be a little too smooth and some of its songs, while perfectly enjoyable, are fairly forgettable. The back half of the album also contains Write Me Back’s two missteps, ‘All Rounds on Me’ and ‘Party Jumpin’’. The songs, in the form of early ’60s R’n'B rave-ups, are the closest Kelly has ever come to rock’n'roll. ’All Rounds on Me’ even features ’50s style rockabilly guitar accents. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the experiment, but they don’t sound like R Kelly songs and, worse yet, sound like faceless genre exercises that are too slick to tap into the wild energy it would take to make them work.
Overall, Write Me Back is another strong album from a singer who has never really produced a weak one. Kelly has certainly earned the right to make whatever kind of music he wants, but, even though his execution here is flawless, it’s hard not to miss his wilder side: not necessarily the over the top paeans to sex, but the jaw-dropping turns of phrase and audacious originality, the moments that make you laugh in awe and rewind the track. It’s not that Write Me Back’s retro sound doesn’t work, it’s just that the space and repetition in more modern hip-hop influenced R’n'B provided the perfect framework for Kelly to weave his gorgeous and endlessly inventive phrases. Still, Write Me Back is a more than agreeable collection of songs that should hold us over while we wait for Kelly to re-engage with contemporary music.
Listen to Write Me Back