“I need you to believe in me,” singer/songwriter and producer R. Kelly begs, seeming to promise his listeners on the earnest hook from “Believe in Me,” one of the few contemporary songs off of his 11th studio album release, Write Me Back. The follow-up to 2010’s critically acclaimed Love Letter is the fourth in a quad of albums with an encyclopedic look at popular musical styles from the 60s and 70s, the so-called gold and silver eras of soul music. Ever versatile in his abilities and talent, Kelly demonstrates that Love Letter wasn’t a fluke in its ability to make yesterday sound relevant for today’s urban adult contemporary market. While not as focused and consistent as his 2010 classic, Write Me Back is a slamdunk for soul fans who are always griping about the loss of melody, infectious hooks, and, well, music in modern radio R&B.
“I need you to believe in me,” singer/songwriter and producer R. Kelly begs, seeming to promise his listeners on the earnest hook from “Believe in Me,” one of the few contemporary songs off of his 11th studio album release, Write Me Back. The follow-up to 2010’s critically acclaimed Love Letter is the fourth in a quad of albums with an encyclopedic look at popular musical styles from the 60s and 70s, the so-called gold and silver eras of soul music. Ever versatile in his abilities and talent, Kelly demonstrates that Love Letter wasn’t a fluke in its ability to make yesterday sound relevant for today’s urban adult contemporary market. While not as focused and consistent as his 2010 classic, Write Me Back is a slamdunk for soul fans who are always griping about the loss of melody, infectious hooks, and, well, music in modern radio R&B. If not adding luster to his long comeback to the throne, he definitely makes you believe in his ability to reclaim his once vaunted-place as the present-day King of Soul.
R. Kelly does make it difficult to hold a grudge. During the infamous era of trials, teen girls, and tons of unsavory accusations, I—like many others I know—swore off R. Kelly. Then Chocolate Factory came out in 2003 and quickly established itself easily as one of the benchmark soul albums of the last ten years. Try as I—and apparently millions of others—might, I couldn’t resist. I didn’t quite feel as hard-nosed in my stance as say Huey did on The Boondocks about the situation, but as an advocate for teens and young adults, the allegations disturbed me to my very core. Nonplussed by the media circus surrounding him, R. Kelly sustained the teetering loyalty of uncertain fans by delivering the feel-good Happy People/You Saved Me double-disc release, both full of barely naked allusions to redemption and rising above the naysayers. But, by the time he was acquitted of all charges following a series of head-scratching court room decisions and events, it seems that fans were kinda over R. Kelly or at least deeply ambivalent about him and his music. Accordingly, his music suffered from uneven material and a death spiral in sales. TP.3 Reloaded, Double Up, and Untitled all seemed to disappear from the public’s radar as soon as they arrived, with only 2005’s TP.3 Reloaded making any significant impact, earning Kelly his fourth #1 album and a platinum sale. I guess one could argue there was the much played “I’m a Flirt” from Double Up, but can they? Really? In any case, it seemed that R. Kelly’s deservedly lauded run was over and that it was fairly safe in social circles to dismiss him as washed-up. Then Love Letter happened and Kelly quietly became the guilty pleasure of many a Moral Police and some still deeply and rightly conflicted music lovers.
With Kelly’s largely self-penned and self-produced Write Me Back, prepare to continue indulging in gluttonous guilt by the Super Size buckets full. R. Kelly embodies a dizzying array of legends both living and gone, from Smokey Robinson on the peppy “Fool for You” to Ron Isley on the sultry “Green Light,” each spot-on homages yet with original music and lyrics. Refreshingly, there is not a cover to be found. But, one would be forgiven for believing that Marvin Gaye had performed the transformative seduction of “Believe That It’s So” or that a 1980s recording of Michael Jackson singing R. Kelly’s “You Are My World” was hiding in a vault somewhere. There is a brief foray into Ray Charles and Chubby Checker territory on the sock hop whirls of “All Rounds On Me” and “Party Jumpin.” The Spinners and any number of Philly Soul boy groups gets a lilting nod on the rolling “Lady Sunday” and a ballad that begs for a slow dance, “One Step Closer.” Each of these tributes is lush in production, easy in flow, and memorable in hook. Perhaps none more than Barry White receives Kelly’s respect, with White’s trademark smooth soul takes on disco imprinted all over “Share My Love” and “Love Is.” Co-written by Skip Scarborough and Dorrell Mays, the radio smash, “Feelin’ Single” definitely owes a debt to the sunshine swing of Bill Withers “Lovely Day,” with a lyric as mature and real-world based as anything in Withers’ catalog absent the sentiment.
Despite R. Kelly’s very capable stroll down memory lane, the surprises often lie in songs that aren’t as instantly recognizable as another artist’s signature style. The Warren “Baby Dub” Campbell co-written and co-produced confessional “Clipped Wings” is one of those apology ballads that gets under your skin until it is burrowing into your soul and suddenly you find yourself a pod person, humming the hook in the most random places. Harmonically layered with whiffs of Wonder, the song is a diamond in a Kelly treasure chest catalog that’s chockfull of them. While ultra modern radio fare that feels a wee bit out of place in a throwback album, the building rap-sung “Believe In Me” actually stands out as among the best of the project’s offering, proving the 45 year-old Kelly can still win in battle against the radio youngin’s whenever he deems fit. Only the clichéd “Fallin from the Sky” and the straining “I Believe I Can Fly” Christina Aguilera self-love tome, “Beautiful in This Mirror,” feels forced. Still, overall, when was the last time only two of 16 original, if heavily inspired, tracks failed to knock listeners’ expectations out of the park?
Yes, R. Kelly has made it difficult to hold a grudge indeed. And, such consistently good work does raise uncomfortable questions about how many other flawed artists we have collectively given passes to for charges (and sometimes convictions) of infidelity, felony assault, domestic violence, drug running, substance abuse, physical and emotional child abuse, marrying underage teens and so many more moral and criminal violations as long as my arm, and I haven’t even left the golden era of soul in my listing of these infractions committed among our generally lauded legends. Knowing I’d throw out half of my music collection, if I had to share moral, spiritual, and political values with an artist whose work I enjoy has allowed me the “out clause” I needed to enjoy R. Kelly’s talent even while knowing I’d never leave my fellow Chi-town homeboy alone with any impressionable young girl I cared about, acquittal be damned. I’m not sure what it will take for the other R. Kelly holdouts, of which there are still many, to be moved to receive Love Letter and Write Me Back, but know that the loss of these musical gifts for listeners will be theirs to bear. R. Kelly is already winning back his reputation as a musical genius among a steady stream of returning fans, one hit at a time. Highly Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson
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*this review was of the Deluxe Edition of Write Me Back.