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R Kelly
Black Panties Mof Gimmers , December 9th, 2013 14:03

Where is R Kelly in 2013? In recent years, Kelly has been softening his image, making reasonable and schmaltzy LPs, echoing in part, 60s and Philly soul. However, there's been a renaissance of his older work. 'Bump 'n' Grind' and 'Ignition (Remix)' have again become club favourites, and irony turned into full on love when Kelly appeared onstage with Phoenix at Coachella. With distance from courts and scandal, Kelly bloomed, spurred on by the (baffling) successes of the Trapped In The Closet operetta and now, cemented with an appearance on the outrageously great Gaga duet, 'Do What You Want'.

Musically, Kelly has never been much of a slouch, and Black Panties is one of his finest works. From the off, the synthesised soul harks back to the glorious album (an overlooked masterpiece in itself) and again, Kelly is showing everyone just what he's capable of, mixing the sacred and the profane like no-one else. In 2000, 'Feelin' On Yo Booty' and 'The Greatest Sex' took sex to a near spiritual level, whereas in 2013 he's actively trying to tie the knot with a woman's junk in the he-must-be-taking-the-piss 'Marry The Pussy'. As ever, it's Kelly at his most flippant that gets the headlines – 'Marry The Pussy' and 'Cookie', where we hear a bewildering array of vaginal metaphors, complete with a Cookie Monster impression – when actually, the wealth and depth of Kelly's craft is found elsewhere.

In 'Genius', he's created a slow-jam that's up there with 'Freek'n You' and leans stylistically on Ciara's wonderful 'Body Party', while 'All The Way' (featuring Kelly Rowland) is another classic ten-to-two'er. Album opener 'Legs Shakin'' proves that it's still only Kelly who can get close to Michael Jackson in terms of writing layered, sophisticated, hooky R&B. It isn't just crooning, though. With 'Right Back', we see Rob getting real, writing an open letter to ignored America, singing "I tried to go to church… I tried to pray but it didn't do nothing… I tried to get a job but it didn't do nothing… I understand… I've been through the same… got to feed the baby without a momma, I feel your pain…" It is powerful, direct, conscious stuff.

Of course, Kelly is never too far away from a VIP section either, dropping 'Spend That' and 'My Story' with big low-end and the now ubiquitous skittering 808s. We also get the accusatory 'Shut Up', which Kelly gave away to fans in 2011, where our protagonist says his records are responsible for every baby born from the 1990s to the present day.

That said, what really pins the album together is a clear professional jealousy of The Future (who guests on the LP) and The-Dream. While this pair have long been re-imagining R&B, Kelly's recent lounge cuts have left him slightly adrift in the long player game (although his recent guest spots and collaborations have shown he's always in touching distance). With Black Panties, he's firmly back in the saddle, creating modern, soulful music not unlike The-Dream's excellent IV-Play and the tripped-out echo of A$AP Ferg's Trap Lord. R Kelly's got a secret weapon though, and that's his musicality. He's twice the musician of most other soul singers, and his fondness for Al Green shines through, coupled with Barry White-esque attention to detail. The album swoons and grooves, sometimes freewheeling, sometimes as precise as eye surgery.

However, no matter how potentially great Black Panties may become, it is the artist himself who could drag it down. If this was someone like Frank Ocean's second album, it would be given immediate classic status, but it isn't – it's R Kelly, one of the most conflicting singers who ever lived. Musically the album is on-point and lyrically it's prone to Kelly's customary laugh-out-loud clunkiness. Despite all that, though, Kelly has made another really great album.