It’s a little strange that I’m sitting here thinking of ways to discuss the creative merits of an R. Kelly record – the very same eccentric character that announced a revival of the (at its best) ridiculous, 22-episode saga of “Trapped in the Closet” back in March. Easily the online meme of the mid 2000s, I remember watching each episode at least a dozen times in just as many liquor/etc-laden dorm rooms (as well as the obligatory follow-on South Park spoof). Along with most of my generation, I had written off Kelly completely for having gone so far off the deep end that it was truly sad the film budget was $3M (especially coupled with his various questionable legal and moral infractions). Nonetheless, Love Letter came in late 2010 (just in time to miss most publications’ year-end listing craze) and offered a surprisingly opposite shift in direction versus the thoughtless, mainstream shit sandwiches of TP.3 Reloaded, Double Up, and Untitled with a thoughtful homage to soul classics.
As the name suggests, Write Me Back is a continuation of this idea and is more of the same well-done R&B forefather impressions. “Love Is” kicks off the record with an obvious tipped hat at Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe”, but there isn’t one strict era Kelly lingers in – late 60s soul-worship a-la Raphael Saadiq, Motown-inflected disco, funk, Michael Jackson (yes, the genre of), and even 90s contemporary. Lyrically, Kelly tries to stay within the confines of the era’s subject matter – still somewhat sex-crazed, but restrained and largely converted to sincere musings about love and relationships. What makes Write Me Back more interesting than merely reverie comes in the form of tracks like “Believe That It’s So”, where Kelly combines several of the styles he’s emulating together. The beat naturally shifts from classic motown to funk, then layering a modern synth driven closing refrain to a place we’ve all been – “One more shot for sure, then I’m all up on the floor / But there’s one thing that I know / I had a little too much to drink”. It’s the subtle production flourishes here or on epic slow-jam “Believe In Me” where the songwriting rises above his previous offerings.
Sure, we all may have that friend that had a friend that was an intern at Kelly’s production studio – replete with stories of Kelly’s varied idiosyncrasies involving urine storage and polyamory (maybe not all of us). But maybe middle-age (he’s 45, seriously) has tamed the lust demons within. The duology of Love Letter and Write Me Back has been his most soulful and inspired work since Chocolate Factory; hopefully next time around Kelly can expand on the moments that make them unique.