After a couple of retro-soul ventures, R. Kelly returns to form in ‘Black Panties.’
R. Kelly never really went away, but in 2013 he has crept back into pop culture nonetheless. He spent the summer headlining large summer festivals, basking in the glow of fans singing his discography back to him. He managed to—if even for a moment—usurp Daft Punk at Coachella during the encore of Phoenix’s closing set, belting out the opening notes of “Bump N’ Grind” to a dead silent crowd waiting for a curtain to drop and reveal a giant pyramid. He would then appear on the remix of the Frenchies’ “Trying To Be Cool” and later on tracks by Justin Bieber (“PYD”) and Lady Gaga. The latter collaboration—the deliciously slinky “Do What U Want”—was a runaway hit that led to appearances on SNL and the American Music Awards, both of which were easily Kelly’s most high-profile television looks in half a decade.
It has been a fun year for the 46-year-old, an unexpected and smooth resurgence at a time when it looked like he was content to rest in the soft embrace of R&B radio and sold out 5,000 capacity theaters. The nightcap is his 13th solo album Black Panties, which tosses aside the classic soul of his previous two albums (2010’s Love Letter and last year’s Write Me Back) for a deep dive into the sounds of contemporary bumping and grinding. For much of the past 10 years, Kelly’s career has been defined by trying to balance his traditionalist roots with a desire to continually update his sound. He has more or less been able to maintain that balance, like on TP3 Reloaded or Double Up, two albums that feature a number of regrettable collaborations (The Game? Kid Rock??) but also a handful of his most indelible tracks. But we also saw the singer reek of desperation on 2009’s Untitled, a drab and misguided album slathered in AutoTune that is inarguably the low point of his career.
Black Panties establishes a third position. There is no “I’m a Flirt (Remix)” or “Same Girl” or “Trapped in the Closet” here, standout singles that rejigger his entire career. There are also few if any profoundly novel album cuts—be it anything as truly outlandish as “The Zoo” or effortlessly tuneful as “Kickin’ It With Your Girlfriend” or “Freaky in the Club”—that quietly register as some of his best work. Instead, Black Panties is thematically coherent and consistently listenable, not unlike Love Letter in that sense, though of course different in just about every other.
The album is almost exclusively about pussy—which, duh, R. Kelly. No one has sung as prolifically about pussy as the man whose debut album sports a nearly seven minute long song called “I Like the Crotch On You”, and perhaps no one will in our lifetimes. On the one hand, Kells reinforces his identity here: for him, comparing pussy to a cookie (on, well, “Cookie”) is not a one-bar metaphor. It is instead an entire song in which he sings about “lick[ing]the middle like an Oreo.” This is the power of R. Kelly: it will be impossible to eat an Oreo for a while without thinking of cunnilingus. He has fundamentally altered your existence.
There is also something undeniably great about a song like “Marry the Pussy,” in which Kelly gives the song’s subject an entire persona: “Pussy talk to me/Pussy sing to me/ Yeah, so much joy it bring to me.” With a song like this, Kelly allows himself to be more human than the rest of us. It is not ridiculous that he wants to marry a pussy—that level of carnality exists somewhere in all of us, male or female. His brilliance is in routinely bringing out into the open the things that—with good reason!—stay in the darkest corners of our minds. In disrupting the social order, maybe his music helps preserve it as well.
But, in the context of his own discography at least, Black Panties isn’t as gleefully absurd as we’ve come to expect from him. It’s not exactly that every R. Kelly song needs to construct an entire fable (TP3’s “Sex Weed” is a good example of him losing the plot), but that at its best his dirtiest tracks have the frission of the legitimately unexpected—each song has the potential to be its own developed story, or to shock the public anew. With Black Panties, what you see is mostly what you get.
What we get is a pretty good modern R&B album, but it’s also one that feels just a bit fossilized. With its undulating synths, abundance of screwed vocals and slowly churning tempos, Black Panties sounds suspiciously like the-Dream’s first two albums. Tracks like “Throw This Money On You” (which is still pretty great) and “Genius” (which is not) sound ripped almost wholesale from the album in which the-Dream wrote a song called “Kelly’s 12 Play”, where he obsessively details fucking to Kelly’s debut album. At times, listening to Black Panties can be like watching the snake eat its own tail. There are also a number of tracks in which Kelly collaborates with current stars like Migos (“Show Ya Pussy”) or DJ Mustard (“Spend That”), and though none come off anywhere nearly as poorly as his song with OJ Da Juiceman, there is also an instant loss of individuality that renders them a bit useless.
Black Panties concludes with “Shut Up,” in which he condemns critics, haters and ex-friends who declared his career dead. Considering his numerous past transgressions with minors, the song (which is actually about his vocal surgery) is rather tone-deaf, though that is not exactly a new development either. But it does end the album on a defiant note that is as jarring as it is energizing. The Pied Piper of R&B finds himself head over heels in love with pussy, yet he refuses to settle down. Or maybe, that is precisely why he won’t.
Credit: Jordan Sargent