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R. Kelly’s new ‘Write Me Back’ rooted in ’70s soul

The notorious R. Kelly live concert Thursday evening. Allstate ArenJune 16 2011. I  Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

The notorious R. Kelly live in concert Thursday evening. at the Allstate Arena June 16, 2011. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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R. Kelly, ‘Write Me Back’ (RCA) ★★★

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Updated: July 27, 2012 6:13AM

On “Love Letter,” his 2010 album of Motown retreads, R. Kelly revisited the safe ’60s and restrained his inner freak. It sorta worked, but it felt very much like a costume. The follow-up in this kinder, gentler phase of his infamy is rooted in ’70s soul — far more Philly than the Chicago native’s South Side — and is a much more natural fit for Kelly’s considerable vocal gifts and lusty one-track mind.

Undaunted by his extracurricular troubles (the 2008 child pornography trial, the recent revelation of a sizable IRS bill), music’s Teflon mack daddy continues the dated correspondence on “Write Me Back,” featuring a dozen stately, string-soaked homages to the genteel grooves of Philly soul masters Gamble & Huff. In superb voice, sounding younger and fresher than ever, Kells croons adult adulations about the magic of matrimony (“Lady Sunday”) and the virtues of honesty (“When a Man Lies”).

The rich but not overpowering production keeps the grooves fluid and the surprises few, though he successfully offers a breezy little bossa nova (“Believe That It’s So”). Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” is such an inspiration here that Kelly applies the same groove to both the opener (“Love Is”) and especially the closer (“Share My Love,” in which Kelly shouts his No. 1 commandment: “Populate! Populate!”).

It’s all so respectable and … normal, but have no fear. More episodes of “Trapped in the Closet” have been announced, Kelly’s ex-wife is on a new reality show debuting Wednesday (see accompanying review), and his memoir is due this week, too. Plenty of freaky-deaky details still to come. If he’s moving through the decades, that means the “Superfreak”-inspired ’80s album is next.

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