In recent years, the Chicago-based R&B singer R. Kelly has alternated between elaborate ballads and and the more erotic collection of songs and videos for his series Trapped In The Closet. His new album, Write Me Back, may be relatively chaste in its sentiments, but it's by no means without passion.
In "Green Light," Kelly importunes a woman he loves who's with another man. "He's not right for you" is Kelly's basic message. "You need me to make you happy," he sings. In a broader sense, Kelly might be talking to his audience. As many of his fans have either moved on or included the music of younger singers like Usher and Chris Brown in their musical lives, Kelly has receded into the background. This album, Write Me Back, is Kelly's attempt to make his case once again to win back fans and gain some new ones.
Anyone familiar with R&B from the '80s and '90s can hear in a song like "Lady Sunday" that Kelly believes a contemporary audience can and will appreciate his stylistic callbacks to an earlier, in some ways more innocent, era. There are a lot of lushly orchestrated ballads on Write Me Back reminiscent of the music of Barry White, Isaac Hayes and the Philly soul sound of acts like Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.
He even reclaims Chuck Berry and Little Richard-style '50s rock 'n' roll on the song "All Rounds on Me." At its best, this is a shrewd tactic. When Kelly croons about wanting to treat a woman the way she deserves to be treated, his voice fills with emotions that cannot be faked — or could only be faked by a first-rate artist. Sometimes he overdoes it with florid desperation. But most of the time, he's a beguiling, convincing romancer.
The track "Believe In Me" practically comes to stand for something Kelly's fans have had a hard time doing in recent years. That time has been spent with the often fascinatingly eccentric sexual fantasies that he's recorded on various songs in his project series Trapped In The Closet — the musical equivalent of the novel 50 Shades of Grey — love as a power struggle with each side reveling in the pleasure that pain can inflict. By contrast, his previous album Love Letter — and now Write Me Back — are more idealistic and occasionally even sunny in their hopefulness. He sings in a strong, warm voice; his phrasing is as carefully smooth as it was intentionally ragged on Trapped In the Closet.
For this new collection, Kelly even reaches deep inside for his inner Smokey Robinson on pop-soul songs such as "Fool For You." In theory, Kelly's updating of classic soul arrives at the right moment, in line with sounds from singers such as Anthony Hamilton and Raphael Saadiq. But while early reviews of Write Me Back have called this album tepid or even timid, I hear the sound of a man seeking strength and inspiration in musical forms to which he has a passionate attachment passing that renewed strength on to his listeners.
Correction July 30, 2012
An earlier Web version of this review, as well as the audio version, suggested that R. Kelly is older than Raphael Saadiq. Actually, Kelly is eight months younger.