Monday, July 9, 2012

The Burg: Write Me Back Review

R. Kelly returns to the roots of R&B on his new album

Depending upon the time period and often the region, the term “rhythm and blues,” or R&B, has meant very different things to very different people over the past seven-plus decades.

As the musicologist — not the “Addicted to Love” dude — Robert Palmer noted in his 1995 book “Rock & Roll: An Unruly History,” it essentially took hold as “a catchall term referring to any music made by and for black Americans.”

But even Palmer was well aware that, by the mid-’90s, his definition had long since become an anachronism — that by the end of the 1950s, R&B was rapidly being incorporated into the lexicon of rock and pop, where it has remained ever since.

That’s not to suggest that R&B hasn’t remained a uniquely vital force in music, or that there aren’t certain stylistic distinctions that can still be made.

You’ve got traditionalists like Jill Scott and Jon Legend, along with more underground revivalists like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.

The R&B charts have also long been a home for pop phenoms in the vein of Adele, not to mention megastars like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. And in more recent decades, singers whose stylings borrow heavily from hip-hop have formed something of a new and rather lucrative incarnation of R&B, populated by the likes of Usher, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé.

In fact, if you’d asked me just a few years ago where R. Kelly — a guy who is widely acknowledged to be one of the most successful R&B singer/songwriter/producers of the past 20 years — fit in to that continuum, I’d have called him the king of new jack swing, such is the ease with which he’s been able to navigate between straight, sexually charged R&B crooning and hip-hop hybrids like his collaborations with Jay-Z and his groundbreaking hip-hopera “Trapped In the Closet.”

But Kelly, who’s worked with everyone from Janet and Michael Jackson to Whitney Houston and Celine Dion over the years, has been undergoing a transformation of sorts that began two years ago with the release of “Love Letter,” a vintage-sounding, old-school soul soother that largely eschewed sexual seductions for come-ons of a more spiritual nature.

“Love Letter” came off as a heartfelt tribute to R&B greats like Smokey Robinson and, especially, Marvin Gaye. It also seemed like a fairly unabashed attempt to gain a certain credibility by raising his art to the level of those legendary artists — just the sort of respectful and respectable mid-career excursion a performer of Kelly’s stature might embark upon to cement his place in the pantheon of R&B royalty.

But with the release this week of “Write Me Back,” yet another collection of toned-down tunes that delve deeply, if a bit more widely, into the past, it appears that Kelly, whose bad boy boasting and behavior has gotten him into trouble in the past, may indeed have found a kind of redemption in returning to the roots of the music he’s so closely identified with.

Or as the titles suggest, “Write Me Back” may just be Kelly’s clever way of continuing the dialogue he began on “Love Letter,” a somewhat steamier sequel from an artist with a well-documented affinity for sequels. (As a side note, Kelly’s announced that several new installments of “Trapped In the Closet” are already in the works.)

Either way, “Write Me Back” builds on the retro foundation of “Love Letter,” with Kelly broadening his palette to incorporate stronger echoes of the smooth, string-embellished flow of classic Philly soul, along with some straight-up Smokey Motown grooves, a little Ray Charles house-rocking and more than a touch of Barry White-style disco-ball slow dancing.

The disc opens with the lite-funk of “Love Is,” a throbbing bass line and mellow piano chordings creating a cooled-down setting for Kelly’s increasingly intense testifying on the virtues of true romance, as lush Gamble and Huff-style orchestrations drive the song toward a climactic chorus of yearning, multi-tracked voices crooning, “Love is/You and me/Together for/Eternity.”

It’s a simple sentiment that might better be suited for a greeting card, but, like Marvin Gaye at his transcendent best, Kelly relies on the naked urgency of his delivery to get his point across.

Another high point is the gospel-tinged “Believe That It’s So,” an earnest track with lyrics like “There’s no mountain we can’t move/We will find strength in the groove,” that takes a playful turn from the sacred to the secular halfway through, with Kelly signaling, “We’re gonna switch it up” and moving into “fingersnapping” clubland with the refrain, “I had a little too much to drink.”

And “When A Man Lies,” with its church organ, strings and gospel groove, is the kind of fervent yet controlled anthem that, again, brings to mind the best of Marvin Gaye.

If there are missteps on “Write Me Back,” it’s Kelly’s flat attempt to rock out like early Ray Charles on the bluesy “All Rounds On Me” and the doo-woppy “Party jumpin’.”

Both fall well outside of Kelly’s comfort zone and sound a bit too much like novelty knockoffs. Kelly’s strongest when he’s chilling, seducing, laying back and going with the groove.

And “Write Me Back” reveals time and time again that he’s got the voice, the timing and the smarts to rise up to the level of a Marvin Gaye artistically. If Kelly truly believes that this is his calling, then the next step would be to move beyond making love to making larger points, like Gaye did with “What’s Going On.”

He’s got the talent and clout. All he needs now is the will.

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