Monday, July 9, 2012

Audiocred: Write Me Back Review

(out of 5)

R. Kelly has gone through a few phases in his — I’d call it “illustrious,” sure — career. For a man as prolific as Kelly, it wouldn’t make sense for him to do otherwise. We want our artists — our truly great artists — to challenge us and  to challenge themselves, to constantly reinvent themselves and push past their own limitations. So this is why through the years we’ve gotten straight-up sex-jam R. Kelly, the ridiculous R. Kelly from “Trapped in the Closet” and, more recently, the earnest, ode-to-his-influences R. Kelly.

That’s important to remember about R. Kelly: that at any given point in time that you’re listening to him, you’re only listening to the latest iteration of his personality. While it might be easy to write off R. Kelly as the same crazy person he was ten years ago, it’s just as easy to think of him as a mad genius that has written some of the most infectious pop and R&B songs of the last 20 years. And not just for himself: Kelly has written songs for a veritable who’s-who of pop and R&B singers, including Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, the Isley Brothers, Aaliyah and Mary J. Blige.

And so for someone so prolific, who has worked with so many greats and influenced so many others, it makes sense to view this part of his career as a self-reflective, “how did I get here” sort of time. And that’s what his last album, Love Letter, really was. A not-so-subtle shout-out to his influences. The term “love letter” evokes a romantic feeling, for sure, and it fits the mood of the songs he was singing. But it’s also his love letter to those singers that influenced him. It was his ode to Sam Cooke, and it was as beautiful as it was catchy. That is to say, it was an R. Kelly album.

Which brings us to what should be considered Love Letter’s second volume, Write Me Back. Here, R. Kelly branches out from an old, slow soul sound he was stressing on his first album and goes full on Barry White and Isaac Hayes, with an occasional Michael Jackson and Chuck Berry track thrown in for good measure. It’s driving the point home from Love Letter. “Sit down, children. I want to show you something.” In that sense, it feels sort of like the 1975 John Lennon album Rock ‘n’ Roll, in which he was doing covers of old rock songs and making them his own.

At the same time, that fits with the one fairly consistent theme throughout Kelly’s career, and that’s his complete confidence in the work he’s putting out. And so with that, Write Me Back becomes another way for Kelly to brag. Yeah, Barry White is Barry White. But R. Kelly thinks he’s Barry White, and Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding, and anyone else he wants to be. When Lennon covered “Stand By Me,” it became a song that would end up on his own Greatest Hits albums. Same goes for Kelly: when he belts out “Share My Love,” the album’s first single and easily the strongest track, he’s not just doing a Barry White impression— he’s taking that style and making it his own. Because even a deferential R. Kelly is still R. Kelly.

While Kelly loves to dabble in other people’s styles, he really wants to remind you of why you loved him to begin with. So, he’s doing his White, his Berry— but he also does his best vintage R. Kelly impression. On “Fallin on the Sky,” there’s some pretty on the nose imagery that Kelly has been known to bandy about. On “Green Light,” the aforementioned sex jam Kelly makes another appearance. Those are really nice moments, but they also come with the realization that we haven’t gotten a truly great R. Kelly moment in a really long time.

Ultimately, this is the only problem with Write Me Back, and really, it’s the same one I had with Love Letter: I love it when R. Kelly busts out an old soul/R&B jam. But I also love it when R. Kelly explores himself. The difference between this phase of R. Kelly and all of the others is that this time we’re not getting Kelly, we’re getting other artists channeled through Kelly. That’s fine, but what always made R. Kelly interesting is that he was an emotionally honest person. It’s when we dig into what makes him him — that personal exploration — and it’s when we’re along for those breakthroughs that we can experience something truly amazing.

Write Me Back is a wonderful listen, and anything the singer comes out with deserves to be taken seriously. But ultimately, these last two releases have really just been filling the time between R. Kelly albums.

No comments:

Post a Comment