R. Kelly returns to the obtuse comedy trappings of Double Up and Untitled, but after two albums of retro soul are we really eager to hear a 47-year-old do his best Ty Dolla $ign anymore?
Apologies for delaying this review so long, but I thought it might help to approach Black Panties a couple months reviewed from its release. Primarily this was due to an over reliance on the Village Voice-rekindled narrative of Jim DeRogatis vs. R. Kelly. It's forever a compelling case, perhaps more than any publicly acknowledged pop star's fatal flaws since Ike Turner or Phil Spector. If only, it's because R. Kelly slipped out of being charged with nary a dent on his mainstream popularity. But as someone who errs on the side of generally letting art speak for the artistic career of an artist -- not their personal lives -- I felt uncomfortable getting involved in any of that.
Besides, Black Panties is a little more interesting as an endurance test anyway. R. Kelly arguably ran away with the R&B torch in the '90s, but until 2010's Love Letter he had mostly allowed the public's perception of him to focus on Chappelle's Show, SNL and personally promoted caricatures, crafting a goofball, wanna-be thug persona who was great for guilty pleasures ("Real Talk" from Double Up, "Pregnant" from Untitled to name a pair) but rarely were his projects relevant as a whole. Write Me Back was perhaps too much too soon after Love Letter, but with that pair of albums R. Kelly returned from career-threatening throat surgery to clarify what a lot of folks who've grown up figuring out how to like R. Kelly have been saying: Robert Kelly is a rare talent, perhaps too consumed by his odd sense of humor to find the proper focus.
Black Panties is an album that hardcore R. Kelly fans have been whispering about since around 2009, the year Untitled dropped in the wake of a leaked 12 Play: The 4th Quarter bootleg R. Kelly intended as his return to the mountaintop of baby making. From its title to R. Kelly's resurgence as a songwriter on Untitled and performer on his pair of soul-glo revivals, Black Panties promised to be the R. Kelly for a new generation. R. Kelly, at age 47, must have realized the stakes were high. Even if he writes and composes better music than his peers -- of whom few other than The-Dream do either -- can a soon-to-be quinquagenarian (sorry, that word is hilarious) really hope to compete with...well, whoever's the reigning champion of sex sing-a-longs.
Sadly, Black Panties doesn't allow its listeners a chance to find out, as R. Kelly's rarely been more lewd or juvenile in his approach to sexuality and gender politics. Songs like "Throw This Money on You", "Marry the Pussy", "Cookie" and "Legs Shakin'" open the album with an attempt to marry ratchet culture to the mid-'90s slow jam scene. About the only reward during this sequence lyrically is the sheer volume of "pussy"s uttered in twenty minutes. These songs are backed by typically strong, surprising melodies. "Marry the Pussy" in particular makes its trite subject matter sound like a song meant for the wedding dance floor, but it and a few others are also severely embarrassing to listen to.
Being funny about sex is, for whatever reason, a lot harder to pull off than it should be, especially in a world where farts and the word "butt" still provoke automatic chuckles. If anyone's proven they can do it, it's R. Kelly. But there's this air of self-seriousness that pervades Black Panties, this feeling of songs that want so badly to push the envelope they forgot how much potential was there before the vulgarities and exclamations. As it turns out, the two greatest highlights of this R&B album have very little to do with the R&B. Young Jeezy and 2 Chainz stop by for some guest verses on "Spend That" (essentially a remake of 2 Chainz' "Spend It" over a quintessential DJ Mustard beat) and "My Story", an off-topic ode to the struggle for success in black America soundtracked by Nothing Was the Same producer Nineteen85. The guest artists steal the show both times while making R. Kelly sound a decade older than many of his peers in a more direct way than either of his past two albums.
Perhaps the worst sin Black Panties commits is in its regression, its unnecessary cries for attention from an audience R. Kelly should be more than happy to leave behind. "Genius" -- about being, what else, a sex genius -- is a fairly safe sounding if incredibly catchy song, the sort of vocal candy that R. Kelly's offspring too often forget to provide. But R. Kelly sounds infinitely sexier these days bringing a similar approach to something like "Number One Hit" from Love Letter. Kelly is still a master at making medium tempo cuts for the step floor, and despite all its lyrical issues, Black Panties is perhaps even more pleasing at a base level than Untitled was.
Unfortunately, the songs that will take all this pleasantly gross foreplay beneath the sheets just aren't there. Much like a sloppy session of seven minutes in heaven never to be spoken of again, Black Panties shows plenty of promise before arriving at the unnecessary inclusion of hater screed "Shut Up" to close things down. It's just unimaginably awkward to actually feel good about experiencing, and a bit depressing that Kelly still feels like his mainstream pop records have to appeal to the denominator below the lowest common after such a strong string of releases prior to this. I suppose there is some novelty to Kelly's application of proper song craft to the Ciroc-fueled adventures of artists like Ty$ and TeeFLii, but as it stands this album feels redundant in many of the same ways Write Me Back did. Solid, but inconsequential.