Not since Marvin Gaye has there been an R&B artist with such polarizing traits, both personal and musical. God and love have made strange bedfellows with immorality and lust throughout R. Kelly’s career. After a departure from the eccentric and raw sexuality that became his trademark over the years, the R. Kelly we’ve come to expect from albums like 12 Play and TP-2 is back on his latest release Black Panties.
The results are mixed, with clear evidence of his musical genius littered throughout the album, as well as some head-scratch worthy deviations from his strengths. His core fanbase will be pleased with much of Black Panties, but will find enough material to skip that it won’t leapfrog any of his past classics in the rankings. The album, like its creator, is flawed enough to make a listener question if it’s a bad album with some good traits, or a good album with some fundamental flaws.
1. “R. Kelly is a brilliant R&B singer…” – Aziz Ansari
The album’s opener “Legs Shakin,” featuring Ludacris, blends Michael Jackson influences on the production with vintage R. Kelly sexuality and crisp harmonies. Everything we love about the legendary Chi-Town soul man is here, and Ludacris reminds why he was the go-to guy for R&B features for a very long time.
And no one else on Earth could turn the run-on catharsis of a Sunday morning testimonial into the soulful and catchy “Shut Up.” Sung in the conversational style of his classic run ins with Mr. Biggs, and his weirdo soap opera for the ages, “Trapped In The Closet,” Kells addresses the career-threatening surgery he endured to save his voice, while sending shots toward detractors, haters, and would-be competition like only he can. The final verse reads like a an attorney’s final address to a jury, with the number of babies made to his music serving as exhibits A through Z. He also somehow made the internet abbreviation “O-M-G” sound oddly compelling, which is an accomplishment in itself.
2. “…Slash crazy person” – Aziz Ansari
After a pair of smoothed out retro soul releases, the depraved sex machine we all remember from songs like “Sex Planet” has returned to stimulate and confuse you. Just between the two tracks “Cookie” and “Marry The P*ssy,” Kells does the following things to the p*ssy: eat it like an Oreo, bang on it like a Crip, dig it a grave, beat it until it’s blue, spank it, drive it crazy like a Bugatti, keep it hot and wet like Miami’s climate, eat it, kiss it, beat it, get in it, drill it, drown it, and make it happy. I left a bunch off because, well, that would be overkill, right? Did I mention that he actually sings the words “would you marry me, pussy?” Because he did.
3. The World of One World
The majority of the rap features don’t add anything to the album, and in some cases are more of a distraction than a welcome addition. 2 Chainz does his 2 Chainz thing on “My Story,” but it’s not really anything we haven’t heard before. The same goes for Jeezy “On Spend That,” which comes off as one trip to the well too many. In an attempt to recreate the loose, off-kilter feel that made “R.I.P.” such a successful single for the ATL trap star, the combination of R. Kelly, Jeezy, and DJ Mustard just sounds like a retread. Not to mention that Kelly’s performance isn’t much more than a lukewarm gumbo of tired catchphrases that’s just ratchet for ratchet’s sake. I’ll throw the bonus tracks with Migos, Juicy J, and Future under the bus here as well, for good measure. Thumbs down.
4. The Creepy Factor
For some, it will be hard to listen to R. Kelly sing the words “they asked him in a[n] interview ‘why do he love these girls?’/the only thing he had to say was motherfuck the world” on “My Story” given his sordid history. But even if we decide to ignore Kelly’s disturbing past, should any 46-year-old man, let alone one with a long history of alleged sexual misconduct, be singing some of the things Kelly does on Black Panties? Kelly’s hyper sexuality has long been a hallmark of his music, but at what point does he cross the line into the land of dirty old men?
5. Slow It Down
Kells seems to fare much better when he leans more in the direction of lust instead of outright carnal savagery. On “Throw This Money On You,” he follows the object of his desire with his eyes as she writhes and gyrates on a chrome pole, then on his lap, then into a private room. It’s the soundtrack for walks to sketchy ATM machines with eight dollar fees. “Genius,”—short for sex genius, because it’s R. Kelly—leaves much more to the imagination than “Cookie” and “Marry The P*ssy” with strong results. The brief Kelly Rowland duo “All The Way” finds the former child of destiny channeling her sultry performance from her hit single “Motivation” in an encounter with the Patron Saint of Nasty. We’ll have this track to thank for a lot of September birthdays.