The Pißmeister Has Done It Again… No, Not That.
When R. Kelly began to ascend from the ranks of Aaron Hall impersonator to R&B staple, I admittedly wasn’t paying attention. I was mostly listening to hip-hop, as few acts in R&B of the time cold hold my ear long enough to keep it playing past the time a prospective girlfriend was riding with me. Even then, I felt more compelled to cling to the sounds of yesteryear, which I was just beginning to discover; it’s no secret that I still hold a high preference to the R&B music of the 1970s and 1980s, the music my parents and elder cousins were listening to, over that of my own generation. Much of what was forced upon our ears through the traditional channels in that era had decomposed into nearly indistinguishable crap, a viewpoint that would squarely put me in what some might call the “relic” category, despite my age.
Honestly, when I think of R. Kelly, songs like “Honey Love”, and “I Believe I Can Fly” don’t come to mind as much as Dave Chappelle’s hilarious send up of the R&B crooner and Kelly’s more embarrasing contributions to the genre like “Thoia Thong” and the unforgettable “Trapped In The Closet” series do. He’ll always be the Pißmeister to me, and that’s being kind. When the cloak was pulled over the dark aspects of his life, and he was in the hot seat, R. Kelly didn’t distract us listeners by making something grand and regal (well, for the most part, he did not), he gave us “Milton”. I half expected him to make his own version of “Piss On You”. Even more tolerable outings like Happy People/You Saved Me couldn’t erase the urinous stain from R. Kelly’s record.
So when word broke that R. Kelly was making a new album, I had the anticipation of one awaiting news that an unnanounced enema may be forthcoming. I paid about as much attention to it as I do the chattering of preteen and teenaged girls over Justin Bieber, their Crisco-and-blowdryer coiffed savior. Then came the public appearances on the Soul Train Awards, and on the graveyard shift during which they air Jimmy Fallon’s late night program. Here was an R. Kelly, free of the cornrows that adorned his head in the decade prior, appropriating the look and sound of a 1960s soul singer. However, it didn’t matter how he looked; what stood out most about Kells this time around was his voice.
There was R. Kelly’s voice, bright and brilliant as it was back in the mid 1990s, there to remind us that it existed, behind a backdrop more befitting his age, and for a brief moment, I had almost forgotten that this was the guy who mocked us with percussion that sounded like the drops of a golden shower during “Trapped In The Closet”. But wait — was this going to be what the whole album was about? A return to the 1960s? “Just like R. Kelly”, I thought. “A follower, not a leader”. We’d been there, done that. Ask Raphael Saadiq and one of the sadder examples idiots in glass houses will use to justify the war on drugs, Amy Crac — I mean, Winehouse.
However, I’m pleased to find that upon listening to this album there is but a small sampling of such. The soon-to-be-ubiquitous “When A Woman Loves”, and “Love Is”, two songs which someone was wise enough to pair together in sequence on the album, and the album’s true closer, “How Do I Tell Her”. The rest are songs of which R. Kelly has allowed the music and his voice, not the sideshow, to speak, and it’s all brilliant! Surely, Kells has let more a more honest musical message prevail. There is no outright aping of other artists here, unlike the time he “borrowed” Frankie Beverly’s baseball cap on the Happy People album, or when he straight lifted Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” for … whatever that song was. Even though “You Are Not Alone”, a song he most famously wrote for Michael Jackson, whom he needlessly shouts out in the beginning, pales somewhat in comparison to the version recorded by his fallen hero, Kells pays the Gloved One a more fitting tribute in the paranoid, multi-tiered vocal confession of “Taxi Cab”, and “Not Feelin’ The Love”, two songs that might have worked if Jackson had been alive to cover them. There’s even a tiny bit of Stevie Wonder in “Just Can’t Get Enough” that sounds more an inflection than an outright bite.
There is very little, if none, of the lyrical nonsense that has made his music an instant change of the channel, none of the “keeping up with the rappers” shtick that has made him more of a laughingstock from those who won’t be fooled by a step anthem or two. Love Letter is an honest-to-God R. Kelly album; it’s aptly titled, as this is both a “Love Letter” to his most loyal fans, and a redemption plea to his detractors. Everything you may have liked and nothing of what you don’t about R. Kelly is contained in this album. This surely is what he should have been making 7 years ago, when everyone was making “POO POO” and “PEE PEE” mashups of “Ignition”. R. Kelly finally has foregone his claim to be the old man in the club, and is making a claim to be the old man who runs the club. You can bet that Trey Songz is studying this album. It is only a matter of time before you hear one of the songs in this collection humming through the closed doors and windows of every young lady’s Ford Focus, Chrysler Sebring, second-hand Mercedes-Benz C-Class, or as they do in my white-flight scorched corner of Cleveland suburbia, Pontiac Grand Ams from the previous decade.
However, I won’t be joining them, for as you all know… I drive a Volvo. And while R. Kelly’s Love Letter is just what the mass market ordered, Volvo drivers are known to be on the fringe. It is, however a step in the right direction, albeit several years off schedule.