3 stars (out of 4)
On his 2010 album, "Love Letter,"R. Kellybegan strolling through his late mother’s record collection, the soul ballads and stepping songs that soundtracked his young life while growing up on Chicago’s South Side. They provided inspiration as he sang for pocket change at L stops and streetcorners, stepping stones on his way to headlining arenas.
“Write Me Back” (RCA), the 11th studio album of his career, is essentially a less-consistently strong sequel, spanning R&B from the ‘50s to ‘70s. Like its predecessor, its 12 songs contrast sharply to the bump-and-grind hits with which Kelly built his reputation and commercial success over the last two decades. His explicit, sometimes outrageously humorous dives into the libido were delivered with sing-songy directness and an attention to sonic detail – ticking hi-hats, sinewy synthesizers, layered vocals -- that led to more than 30 million album sales. Including his work with Aaliyah, Maxwell, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan, Kelly is a quadruple threat singer-songwriter-producer-performer whose hits span genres and generations.
All the while, his career has been shrouded by legal difficulties, most notoriously the child pornography charges that hung over him for years before he was acquitted in 2008. More recently he’s been under I.R.S. scrutiny over $5 million in allegedly unpaid taxes dating to 2005.
Skeptics may regard “Love Letter” and “Write Me Back” as transparent attempts to ingratiate himself with an audience that doesn’t quite know what to make of Robert Sylvester Kelly – an R&B star with a twisted reputation. These albums are designed to win him some nods of recognition from an older, more worldly crowd, the one that grew up on the adult soul of Donny Hathaway and Teddy Pendergrass. For the most part, they succeed.
Kelly has absorbed the work of those singers and integrated them into his own music. Their influence was always apparent in his gospel-trained vocal tone, his feel for domestic drama, but never quite this overtly. “Love Letter” drew a straight line back to those influences and was one of the more accomplished albums of his career, as if he were trying to pay tribute to his heroes by writing songs that evoked their sophistication and swing without flagrantly copying them.
“Write Me Back” dips into the same river of old-school soul, when singers donned suits and ties much like the ones Kelly sports on the album cover while posing in front of a vintage theater marquee. The opening “Love Is” poses a series of rhetorical questions, delivered in the time-honored secular-preacher style of Hathaway, Johnnie Taylor and other R&B greats: “How many of you are living witness that love is real? … How many of you know that love will be there for you when you’re up and when you’re down?”
On “Feelin’ Single,” he makes himself sound 20 years younger by singing in a higher register, evoking the boyish innocence of a Michael Jackson over a stepping dance groove accented with finger snaps. “Lady Sunday” smacks of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes in their mid-‘70s pre-disco heyday: uptempo orchestration gliding straight to the dancefloor. “Fool for You” could only be creamier if its obvious inspiration, Smokey Robinson in his “quiet storm” ballad mode, sang it.
But Kelly sounds out of his depth when he tries to rock – more Danny and the Juniors than early Isley Brothers as he takes on “Party Jumpin’ ” and dropping in lounge-act electric guitars for “All Rounds on Me.”
Listeners may find themselves toggling between questioning Kelly’s sincerity and admiring his facility as a producer and singer. On “Believe in Me,” he overdubs his voice until it sounds like a choir, while chastely crooning, “Put your hand in mine, walk with me spiritually.” The virginal preacher’s son? It’s not a role Kelly plays very convincingly.
A more apt model is Barry White, the R-rated ‘70s balladeer, whose legacy of lushly orchestrated seduction is all over this album. On the closing “Share My Love,” the worlds of White and Kelly converge in a swirl of strings, piano and wordless vocals that smooths a path from the dancefloor to a palatial bedroom suite. “Populate! Populate!” Kelly chants in what is this album’s funniest, most genuine moment.
So just as “Write Me Back” calls it a night, Kelly telegraphs his next move. The title of his next album? “Black Panties.”