In all the tumult surrounding R. Kelly -- his sex scandals, his court
debacles, his way with a
vegetable-as-romantic-stand-in metaphor -- one
thing often gets lost. The man can sing. On recent albums, that fact
got lost behind his daffy slow jams (“Sex Planet” or “The Zoo,” for
instance) that disguised his melodicism and vocal powers. On “Love
Letter,” he does away with the freakiness and lays down a full record of
slow-simmered, grown-man emoting. And it feels like a wayward husband
who’s finally come home for good.
Some of us also love the lusty, batty Kells whose come-ons could make
Prince blush. But “Love Letter” isn’t that album. Instead, it’s steeped
in vintage Stax and Motown. “When a Woman Loves” gracefully nods to
Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember” while giving Kells a smoky,
tempered backdrop to tap decades of undeserving-man ballads. Wait for
the pleading a capella bridge, which goes on three times as long as it
needs to -- and it scorches. “Love Is” has a "Soul Train" pluck, and
“Number One Hit” rides babymaking synthesizers worthy of Sade. Only a
bonus cover of his Michael Jackson collaboration, “You Are Not Alone,”
feels tacked on.
The rest are all misty-eyed jams to make Maxwell and Raphael Saadiq
feel topped. “Lost in Your Love” asks the album’s central question: “Can
I bring love songs back to the radio?” Yes, Kells, you can. And it’s
been far too long.