Artist: R. Kelly
Album: Write Me Back
Genre: R’n’b, soul
You know that kind of glittery, seasonal, warm and huggable feeling you notice in films like Love, Actually? That’s what listening to R. Kelly is like. Or rather, that’s what listening to this album by R. Kelly is like. Persistently cosy, this is one big collection of cuddly, chivalrous warbling, dressed up in the soft groove inflections of 70s r’n’b and earnest convictions of soul. It’s a soothing listen, but barely any more than that – more of a tepid take on ideas and sounds you’ve heard many times before, and without any great forward strides or sparks of originality. It is possible, given Kelly’s well-documented legal troubles and recent unfortunate medical issues, that he chose not to exert himself and wanted to play it safe with a thick, soppy onslaught of crooning love songs. That is fine in that it’s what the people want, but it deprives Write Me Back (the title a reference to his previous album, Love Letter) of any real flair. On the flavour scale, this is caramel.
The intent is clear from the first few songs, which stick so rigidly to the same formula that one gets the image of a frazzled producer nervously adding extra coats of gloss for the smoothest finish. Make no mistake, these are fun songs, but the central idea is recycled so often that they wear fast. “Love Is” sounds vaguely like the theme from Shaft, a chirpy and jazzy song that aims to dazzle the audience with charm from the outset. It’s a fun listen and good evocation of a well-known sound, proving more than enough to endear. “Feelin’ Single” is sunny and refined, making the most of Kelly’s glossy vocals to create a bright atmosphere. “Lady Sunday” is a coddled demonstration of love and attentiveness – persistently upbeat, and more than a little familiar. Given that this kind of heavily romanticised fervour seems to appeal to fans, it’s obvious that he’s completely on the money here. However, the song’s velveteen and heavily produced sound is unlikely to bolster it against lack of depth and staying power. It couldn’t be any more wantonly seductive if it came draped in satin, and one can’t help but feel that the album is mired – even at this early stage – in fatigue and uncertainty. The songs are really similar and not just because this style of music tends to come with particularly vivid trademarks; it comes across as lazy. The same rehashed idea informs most of the tracks, just at different stages of the infatuation cycle. Even if Kelly built his career on smooth decadence, it’s difficult to sustain much momentum around such unimaginative offerings.
“Fool For You” and “Believe In Me” are well-intentioned but far too bland. “Green Light” is particularly slow-burning. Kelly wafts his way through the opening notes with such careful emphasis that he seems almost entranced in his own words. The stalled pace of the song actually makes his wanton pleas faintly disturbing, and the vocal refrains that join him later don’t work at all. It’s all very laconic and fixated, but unless you’re the object of affection here (and maybe even if you are), it’s too awkward to do anything but fall flat.
Kelly doesn’t sit on his laurels for the entire album, however – there are some glimpses of creativity elsewhere. The unfortunate thing is that many of these offerings come with other failings that ultimately undo their good work. “All Rounds On Me” is really fun to begin with, betraying a touch of “Johnny B. Goode” in its surly notes. Invigorating and with a great bass line, it makes for a hugely welcome change to all the tepid love songs. The problem here is that, even with brass band elements adding a jovial spark, Kelly himself sounds so deadpan as to be almost disinterested. This deprives the song of perhaps the definitive touch of chutzpah, so that even with plenty of life it never explodes. The opposite performance then undoes “Party Jumpin’,” as Kelly leaps into such an excitable rendition he sounds entirely out of place. What aims to be a raucous slice of spirited good fun is actually a very controlled party, as the histrionics are reserved for his vocal chords and sorely absent from the music. It has a flouncy and freewheeling air to it alright, but it never comes together and wears thin very quickly.
Write Me Back is a safe bet both in sound and style, which will likely win it mainstream favour but little by way of admiration. It is, as stated above, a soothing listen and perfectly enjoyable album, but more is needed to give it weight. For an artist so well-known and one who is capable of much better, this fizzles half-heartedly out.
Review written by Grace Duffy