Music Feature

Review: R. Kelly - 'Love Letter'

by Bill Chenevert
Kels is back; he atones for his sins and feels you up like braille
r-kelly-2

Admittedly, I'm coming at his newest from a fresh perspective. In early December, Kelly did a two-night stint on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The man put on a show-stopping performance of "When A Woman Loves," the first soulful single off of his tenth proper full-length record, Love Letter. Awaiting his performance my mind shuffled through images of big, tinted SUVs pumping "Ignition," and his peeing on little girls. As it turns out, Robert Sylvester Kelly is taking his sound in a new direction. This record could've been made fifty years ago, not because it scratches and cites outdated political issues, but because he sonically places himself alongside greats like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Love Letter's got a really beautifully-produced old-school vibe, full of slow jams and love songs. No "Gigolo" or "We Thuggin'" here. Not even close.

Back in 2007, R. put out a DVD of his Light It Up tour. It's a wild ride. As he strips, thrusts, and sweats through montage after montage of '90s and early 2000s hits, you're amazed at the hip-hop hits that he's been a part of in some capacity. The man has sung hooks for: B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nick Cannon, Cassidy, Ja Rule, Snoop Dogg and Beanie Sigel. Most of these songs are about the same thing: women, money, booze, clubs, hotel lobbies and how he/they are the baddest in the game. So there's this legacy to contend with, in addition to the "Trapped in the Closet" suite on TP-3: Reloaded. Thank goodness he doesn't use either of these thematic concerns with his newest. Here he apologizes for his misdeeds, he asks for forgiveness and promises to be a gentleman. It's a chivalrous approach to a record that he wrote and produced himself, and it's very endearing.

"When A Woman Loves," the first single, is practically two songs - a slower, thoughtful first half, and a piano-slamming frenzy on the back end. "And I'm forever indebted, and I'm forever indebted," he sings. His voice is better than ever here, exhibiting both great control and impressive manipulation. At the apex of the slow half, towards the end, he stuns with a vocal that drifts back and forth between a croon and a throaty scream. It's enough to give you shivers. The second single, "Love Letter," is a smooth and soulful journey. "Did you get my call? Did you read my love letter?" he asks. "Did it touch your heart?" How sweet is that? Enough about singles. Wait 'til you hear "Number One Hit," a soft and quiet ode (albeit a slightly corny analogy) to a woman who he makes sweet, sweet "music" with. A lovely middle set of songs round out Letter with "Just Can't Get Enough," "Taxi Cab," and "Radio Message." After all is said and done, you get a secret bonus track (yup, spoiling that surprise) of R. covering Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone." And faithfully. No fussing with a classic here.

Whether you feel him as a person or not, you can't deny the beauty of this set of songs. Pissing, pornography and closets aside, if you examine this piece of art on its own, you'll be impressed and wowed with the product. Some young people have already had their R. Kelly moment, like when he put his first few records out and "Bump 'n Grind" scandalized adults. 16 years after that single, we've got an entirely different sound from the man, the myth and the legend. And it is heavenly.  (Jive Records)

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