Updated: April 14, 2014 4:47PM
Maybe he’s really Dave Chappelle.
That would be a more believable justification for “Black Panties” (RCA), the 12th album by Chicago R&B juggernaut R. Kelly, released Tuesday. As its title suggests, the album is for bedroom listening only, but a bedroom with starchy sheets and rusty mirrors. Songs like “Marry the P----” and “Show Ya P----” are less seductive and more point-at-the-pictures-on-the-menu sexy. Despite the full lothario treatment — all slow grinders set to finger-snaps — Kelly delivers an album that walks the line between self-parody and listless eroticism.
Not that this is news. Since being found not guilty in a 2008 trial where he faced more than a dozen child pornography charges, Kelly has actively reinvented himself as an eccentric crossover artist and viral video comedy star. The target market consists of millennial-aged indie rock fans, who not only have faint memory of his court saga, but who also populate three top destination festivals Kelly appeared at last summer: the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival outside Nashville, and the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
The results of those appearances were live collaborations with members of My Morning Jacket, the Alabama Shakes and the French dance-pop band Phoenix. Also this year, Kelly popped up on songs by top stars Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Bruno Mars and Pharrell. There is, of course, the continuing DVD opus “Trapped in the Closet,” a full 33-chapter novelty project that can best be described as incomprehensible, surreal and an opportunistic portal into a new audience groomed for irony. Chappelle, “South Park” and others could not pass up their own note-perfect parodies. And yes, new chapters are expected in 2014.
So Kelly is everywhere, which ultimately means a dilution of musical ambition. A singer who always fashioned himself after the 1970s soul era of Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye, Kelly stayed invested in those strengths in recent albums like “Love Letter” from 2010 and “Write Me Back” from 2012. “Black Panties,” however, is a throwback to his 1993 breakthrough debut album “12 Play” that established him as a master of boudoir music with libidinous hit singles like “Sex Me, Pts. 1-2,” “Bump n’ Grind,” and “Your Body’s Callin’.”
But 20 years ago Kelly was 26, an age where braggadocio comes naturally. From a 46-year-old man, the lowball come-ons of this new album feel clumsy, especially for a singer whose questionable sexual exploits came to light in a child pornography trial. Kelly pushes the porno soul throughout “Black Panties” but the ideas are vacant, and the sex cold and violent.
Musically, the songs don’t evolve. Once a master of melody, Kelly sticks to similar production elements for each song — electronic fingerclicks, sliced-and-diced vocal drops, and vamping synthesized strings. Seventeen slow jams crammed together in succession may have sounded like a good idea, but Kelly doesn’t deliver anything that sounds remotely like a hit.
For an album that is obviously meant for the bedroom, and follows in a grand tradition of sexually brash soul music, the libido of these songs is weirdly cold. Throughout the album, women’s body parts are maligned: On “Cookie,” he compares the vagina to an Oreo; throughout he brags about beating it up and killing it raw. Similarly, on “Tear It Up,” he recounts sex so violent, the bed breaks. A three-minute spoken-word skit involves a phone conversation between Kelly and his friend that becomes a grousing session about their women. Like the cover art suggests, the other half in these songs are props.
Of course it’s very likely this may be Kelly in character, but does it matter? No matter what, lyrically, “Black Panties” is ripe for parody. There’s a reason why “Star Trek” actor Benedict Cumberbatch was recently solicited by “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to give a dramatic reading of Kelly’s new song, “Genius.” Consider this example: “Baby girl, we’re both so freakin’ hot/We don’t wanna freakin’ stop/Got each other like la la la la la my baby/Oh tell me I’m the master baby.”
The new R. Kelly is a camp master, when he used to be master of so much else.
Mark Guarino is a Chicago freelance writer.