On his new album, "Write Me Back" (RCA), R. Kelly sets aside his contemporary R&B and often sexually explicit themes to embrace the smooth soul and classic R&B of his youth, spent here on the South Side. It's a transition that began with his late-2010 release, "Love Letters." On both discs, Mr. Kelly, 45, pays tribute to Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Etta James, Eddie Levert, Smokey Robinson, Teddy Pendergrass, Stevie Wonder and others, often by co-opting their tones and phrasing as he sings. But by writing new songs that refresh the old-school sound, Mr. Kelly, who is nothing if not audacious, justifies his place in their class.
"I wanted the feeling of sitting on the porch with my mother and my uncles," he said by phone. "When I sing these songs, the memories start to wake up. You can smell the fragrances. We all say 'I know she's smiling down on me,' but I really do believe it."
In "Soulacoaster," Mr. Kelly reveals an often-horrific childhood. He was sexually abused; he witnessed a playmate drown; he struggled in vain with academics; he was shot on his bicycle after having pedaled downtown to tell the Sears Tower that one day he too would be a symbol of Chicago. (Later, the man who shot him would ask Mr. Kelly for help to launch a recording career.) For years, Mr. Kelly sang on street corners and under the El, collecting donations in a fried-chicken bucket. His 1993 debut solo album, "12 Play," blended his powerful voice, modern rhythms and sexually charged lyrics; an update of the R&B tradition, it sold more than six million copies.
Almost two decades later, Mr. Kelly is the most successful R&B artist of his era, with album sales approaching 40 million. His inspirational song "I Believe I Can Fly" won three Grammy awards. He's produced and remixed many top-shelf singers and rappers, and recorded duets with Celine Dion, Ronald Isley, Michael Jackson, Usher and others. A 2002 collaboration with Jay-Z ended amid on-tour tensions that boiled over when a member of Jay-Z's entourage was charged with pepper-spraying Mr. Kelly.
Mr. Kelly has had his own legal troubles: In 2002, he was indicted here on numerous counts arising from an alleged sexual encounter with a minor. Shortly thereafter, police officers discovered photos at his Davenport, Fla., home depicting an underage female. The Florida case was dismissed, and in Chicago Mr. Kelly was found not guilty on all counts. Yet the stigma of the accusations lingers.
On his new albums, Mr. Kelly largely steers clear of heavy sexual content. "Some people thought it was risky," he said. "The sexual songs launched the R. Kelly career. But you're not supposed to stay in one lane. At one point, we all say 'I wish we were back in the day.' With my music, I can do that."
At the 2001 Chicago premiere of the film "Ali," Muhammad Ali told Mr. Kelly he reminded him of Sam Cooke. Soon after, the singer converted his home into a facsimile of the Copacabana for what he called "a '50s party," complete with period clothing. As he played the role of Cooke and performed his songs, Mr. Kelly was reconnected with his musical roots. "I got the bug," he said.
The new albums flow like a mixtape of great American music of the '60s into the '80s. While Mr. Kelly mimics the masters, his talent never fails to assert itself. Several velvety tracks and soul-shouters deserve a place in the canon as performances as well as compositions. The music, as well as newly released chapters of his "hip-hopera"—the noirish serial film "Trapped in the Closet"—reveal that his sweet-and-sour charm is intact.
In concert here, Mr. Kelly performed his early hits, doing so with stop-and-start medleys and audience sing-alongs. But late in the show he dug deep to belt out the new songs, dispelling concerns that recent throat surgery had stripped his voice of its power. Squealing with delight, the audience embraced these new tracks. It's the latest step in the R. Kelly evolution and a righteous nod toward the influences that inspired him.