A perfectionist when he wants to be, a traditionalist steeped in 40 years of R&B craftsmanship, a commercially canny pop star with a knack for right-place-right-time collaborations, R. Kelly can knock out exquisitely slick, universally appealing hits in his sleep. But there's also no denying that Kelly's a real-deal eccentric, in his art as in his life.
Love Letter – 43-year-old R Kelly's 10th album – seems to signify a more mature and restrained version of the man who sang "I'm about to take my key and stick it in the ignition" on his No 1 hit Ignition (Remix), back in 2002 (he wasn't talking about driving). Gone are the sexually graphic slow jams, and in their place is a more vintage-soul feel, with Just Can't Get Enough recalling Marvin Gaye, while the lyrics mix lovesick apologies with chivalrous dedications, most notably on the the excellent When a Woman Loves. Other highlights include Lost in Your Love, the sleek Number One Hit and the organ-heavy, Stevie Wonderesque Just Can't Get Enough.
Love Letter is not the R. Kelly album for those who love the singer for his freaky ways, his wince/chuckle-inducing lyrics. Apart from one line in “Lost in Your Love” -- specifically “I wanna make love in Braille, while I’m feelin’ on you” -- and perhaps “Taxi Cab,” Kelly’s tenth studio album is tame by his standard. It’s easily the least sexually charged album in his discography, ideal for those who admire him as a singer, arranger, and producer but tune out the fantastical come-ons.
The latest from the king of sex-mad R&B is a refreshingly tasteful foray into classic soul and PG lovemaking. On Love Letter, R. Kelly does falsetto valentines, flirty Motown bounce, even a Christmas remix of single ”Love Letter” that involves zero funny business under the mistletoe. The old horndog does make one hilariously graphic appearance on ”Taxi Cab,” which rivals Don Draper?s backseat escapade from last season?s Mad Men for 2010?s stickiest crosstown ride.
For all the insanity of his output, you can’t really say that R. Kelly isn’t talented. The guy has an old soul/Sam Cooke/Marvin Gaye kind of voice behind all the Trapped in the Closet and alleged illegal dealings. His new album, Love Letter, runs the gamut from new soul to the old soul that made Cooke and Gaye famous, and Kells nails it in all genres.
“You used to laugh when I touched you like that,” R. Kelly says at the start of “Not Feelin’ the Love.” Me? I’ve blessedly never been touched by Kelly personally, but I have laughed at some of the things he’s said. At, not with. So I can express solidarity with the object of his affections that, with Love Letter, things just aren’t as they used to be.
R. KELLY “Love Letter” (Jive) R. Kelly stepped out onstage last month at the 2010 Soul Train Awards and sang his familiar, discomfiting refrain: “There is something that I must confeh-eh-eh-eh-esss.” But instead of segueing into “Bump N’ Grind,” his lascivious early hit from which that line is taken, he did a quick medley of tamer hits then went all out on a performance of “When a Woman Loves,” from his new album, “Love Letter.” It was stirring and devastating, full of impressive vocal riffs sung heartily, all delivered as if he might not ever get another chance.
At times on his new album, Love Letter, R. Kelly is open and vulnerable in the name of being inspiring. At others, he is a comedian who may or may not know he’s telling a joke. This juxtaposition is nothing new for Kelly, who in the past has released works like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “World’s Greatest” while also creating the infamous “Trapped in the Closet” mega-suite—a grouping of twenty-two songs that tell an insanely complicated and absurd tale of love and betrayal.