TERRY GROSS, HOST:
R. Kelly has a new album of love songs, called "Write Me Back." In recent years, Kelly has alternated between elaborate ballads and the earthier, more erotic material he's composed as a series of songs and videos using the collective title "Trapped in the Closet." Rock critic Ken Tucker says Kelly's new album, "Write Me Back," may be relatively chaste in its sentiments. But it's, by no means, without passion.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
R. KELLY: (Singing) Whoa, oh, yeah, ooh. Just give me the green light, oh, girl. Give me the green light, and I'll go. I'm at your door...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's R. Kelly, importuning 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.
In a broader sense, R. 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 - into 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY SUNDAY")
KELLY: (Singing) Where there's the sun, there is that girl. She is the one that spins my world. When I am down, she makes it better. When there are clouds, she change the weather. I'm wishing well, oh, my peace and my glory. There's a fairy tale, and she is my story. When I feel drained, her love is like a fountain. And when I'm weak, she can move mountains. I never fell in love, no, this way. I never felt a kiss, no, this way. I never felt joy this way till my Lady Sunday came. Oh, I am...
TUCKER: Anyone familiar with R&B from the '80s and '90s can hear, in a song such as that one - "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-Little Richard-style '50s rock & roll, on the song "All Rounds on Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL ROUNDS ON ME")
KELLY: (Singing) Hey, me and my baby got into a fight. Man, it must've lasted all through the night. About the time the rooster crowed at the crack of the light, we made love. Now everything's all right. Yeah.
(Singing) All the rounds on me, 'cause I feel real good tonight. Shoop, shoop. I said, all the rounds on me 'cause I feel real good tonight. Shoop, shoop. Well, I'm back with my baby. Everything going to be all right. Shoop. Hey...
TUCKER: 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 faked only by a first-rate artist. Sometimes, he overdoes it with florid desperation. But most of the time, he's a beguiling, convincing romancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELIEVE IN ME")
KELLY: (Singing) I'll be gone for a minute. I know you can't take it. The Lord's walking with me so I'm going to make it. Girl, dry your eyes. Baby, be strong. Look at me. I'm going to really need you to be strong, girl, for the both of us and for our family. I can make it if you just stay beside me. Hold it together up until my returning. Light a candle, read a Scripture for my journey.
(Singing) I know that heaven's going to make a way for me, so write a kiss on a letter, send it to me. And I'm going to think about you every day, but until the sun shine my way, girl, I'm going to need you to believe in me. Yeah. Girl, I'm going to need you to believe in me. Yeah. Girl, while I'm gone just know, I'll be back. Oh...
TUCKER: That's "Believe In Me," 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 so-called hip-hopper project "Trapped In The Closet." These are like the musical equivalent of the "50 Shades of Grey" books - 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 a pop-soul song such as "Fool For You."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOOL FOR YOU")
KELLY: (Singing) I used to say I'll never let a woman break my heart. No, not I. And I used to say I'll never let no girl leave me scarred. I was so, so blind 'cause in the midst of us breaking up, ooh, baby, I talked like I was so, so tough. Now I can run up the game, call out your name, girl, but at the end of the day I'm just a fool for you, babe.
TUCKER: In theory, Kelly's updating of classic soul arrives at the right moment, since it's in line with sounds from younger singers such as Anthony Hamilton and Raphael Saadiq. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Kelly is eight months younger than Saadiq.] But while some 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, and then passing that renewed strength on to his listeners.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed R. Kelly's new album, "Write Me Back." Coming up, we listen back to an interview with actress Lupe Ontiveros. She died Thursday, at the age of 69. You may know her from her roles in "Desperate Housewives," "Real Woman Have Curves," and "Selena." This is FRESH AIR.
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