A soul survivor who still has the power to seduce
★★★★ (out of 5)
R Kelly remains, even in his mid-forties, the most irrepressibly lubricious of contemporary soul singers, his orbit never straying far from the boudoir, though as his bizarre song suite "Trapped in the Closet" confirmed, never insensitive to eccentricity.
Upon recovering from last summer's surgery on his tonsils, Kelly announced his next album was to be called Black Panties, and represent a return to the charged sexuality of his 12 Play debut. But he's been persuaded to shelve that project in favour of Write Me Back, a thematic extension to his acclaimed 2010 offering, Love Letter. On that album, he demonstrated his facility with the mores and techniques of classic Sixties soul, while this follow-up finds him emulating Seventies Philly soul, a medium with which he sounds, if anything, even more at home.
The bridge is made with the opener "All Rounds On Me", a slice of Ray Charles-style R&B, featuring gospel inflections in the service of carnal love. But once its honking baritone sax and "shoop-shoop" backing vocals are out of the way, Kelly's fully into Seventies mode, with period-sound drum-machine pulses lending a gentle Latin sway to songs like "Believe That It's So" and "Lady Sunday", and sumptuous strings cementing the lavish symphonic-soul style of "Fool for You" and "Share My Love", with its plea to "get together, populate" – by Kelly's standards a genteel chat-up line.
There are a few duff notes – "Party Jumpin'" is a clumsy OutKast soundalike, and at six minutes, "One Step Closer" more than overstays its welcome – but for the most part, Kelly's touch is equally sure both on ballads and more up-tempo numbers, like the skittish disco-funk of "Love Is" and "Feelin' Single", which glides along with the rhythmatic elegance of Chic. Yet for all his production skills, he remains first and foremost a vocal stylist of considerable ability, his subtle melismatics on "Beautiful in This Mirror" shaming the clumsier entreaties of younger vocal suitors.
Download: All Rounds On Me; Beautiful In This Mirror; Believe That It's So; Feelin' Single