Music review: ‘Black Panties’

December 28, 2013 

R. Kelly gets back to the (slow) grind on “Black Panties.”

  • R&B

    R. Kelly

    Black Panties

P. Kelly turns his talent back to sex-talk mode

When in doubt, sex it up. R. Kelly gets back to the (slow) grind on “Black Panties,” a lavish and almost entirely single-minded album that returns him to what’s probably his best-known and definitely his most widely parodied mode. After the kindly, uplifting, organic-sounding neo-soul love songs of his two most recent albums – “Love Letter” in 2010 and the more disco-tinged “Write Me Back” in 2012 – Kelly has returned to the leisurely, explicit come-ons that established his persona on his 1993 debut solo album, “12 Play.” He’s also back in his more recent robo-R&B realm of electronic keyboards, programmed drums and the buzzing fringe of Auto-Tune on his voice.

His facility is undiminished. Only Prince can match him in creating oozing, undulating motion at tempos that would leave other singers stuck like dinosaurs in a tarpit. Each song on this album is a gleaming overdubbed edifice of, for instance, creamy vocal harmonies (“Legs Shakin’ ”), pearly keyboard lines over sparse drums (“Genius”) or electronic stutters of voice and artificial percussion (“My Story”). Even through the welter of effects, Kelly’s voice holds some humanity: a streak of melancholy and a hint of gospelly aspiration.

But in choosing to do a 21st-century sequel to “12 Play,” Kelly has deliberately narrowed his possibilities. Songs like “Cookie,” “Crazy Sex” and “Legs Shakin’ ” start off as promises of highly skilled sexual attentions, but end up as to-do lists. The album isn’t just focused on lascivious promises of sex; it’s focused on strip-club sex. Pole dancing figures in more than one song; so does the assumption that what all women want besides his prowess is conspicuous consumption.

The odd song out on “Black Panties” is “Shut Up,” which he released online in 2011 after he had surgery on his vocal cords. His voice is less gimmicked, the keyboard chords are gospel and the vocals have the hip-hop flow of “Trapped in the Closet,” as Kelly attacks naysayers and shows he can sing again.

Jon Pareles, New York Times

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