Mr SoulCuts is disturbed by R Kelly’s new album, Write Me Back. The early release of Share My Love (albeit only in the States; the record company not seeing fit to release it in the soulless UK) had Mr SoulCuts excited about the follow-up to Love Letter. A string-laden disco ditty, Share My Love offered a tasty riff on Barry White’s signature sound, with R providing a controlled yet impassioned vocal, hinting that Write Me Back could be a classic soul album. We even forgave the miserly use of synth horns thanks to the strong songwriting (although Kelly screaming out ‘populate’ towards the end of the track did have Mr SoulCuts tumbling off his chair, before joining Mrs SoulCuts for some right royal ‘populating’, of course!) and downright infectious groove. However, the quality of Share My Love and the impressive Lovely Day for the steppers vibe of Feelin’ Single were only diversions from a cynical, boring and unimaginative release.
The album kicks off with the half-baked Barry White pastiche, Love Is, replete with a lazy arrangement and lacklustre synth horns reminiscent of the tinpot end of the indie soul spectrum. One imagines Bazza to be turning (slowly) in his grave. While I’m grateful that Kelz has eschewed his sex-pest, lothario image for this release, his middle-of-the-road soul stylings are nothing to be celebrated. Indeed, rather than breaking new ground, this retreading of the sounds found on Love Letter offers nothing but a hackneyed spin of a previously successful formula. This approach seems to be an integral part of R Kelly’s release schedule as he oscillates between dungeon-styled ‘bedroom’ aberrations, distilling 12 Play down to bitter dregs (take a listen to Echo, or Bangin the Headboard from the equally imaginatively named Untitled from a few years back for irrefutable evidence), and more supposedly soulful escapades.
Admittedly, the following tracks Feelin’ Single and Lady Sunday are enjoyable, if formulaic, steppers. However, lyrically, R Kelly remains lazy and trite, proffering gems such as As a fairy tale, then she is my story, whatever the hell that means. Admittedly, the lyrics are not quite as cringe-worthy as the tween-level poetry found on Number One Hit from Love Letter, You’re my Titanic, my movie star, my Coming to America, my Avatar, but childish and confusing metaphors such as, If you were my eagle, and I your dove only underline Kelly’s inability to write lyrics with any depth of feeling and intelligence.
Write Me Back has been received in some quarters as R Kelly’s best work to date and evidence of a return to ‘real soul’ in the mainstream, but such plaudits are symptomatic of the dearth of quality soulful releases currently doing the rounds. There’s nothing original or exciting about R Kelly’s pastiche. Let’s take an album that similarly mined old school soul, Tony Toni Tone’s House of Music, to highlight the laziness of Write Me Back. Both albums trigger memories of legendary tracks, hugely influenced by past masters, but the attention to detail, arrangements and live instrumentation on the classic House of Music make Write Me Back sound as if it was composed on some old dear’s Bontempi keyboard.
Believe That It’s So starts pleasantly enough as a Stevie pastiche, before transitioning into another dull and meandering steppers groove with those snyth-flute runs and plastic-horn stabs so beloved of our hero. R then jumps into his cardboard time machine for the Sixties styled Fool For You, but the lacklustre arrangement calls to mind the output of a has-been working out of a crusty basement studio, not one of the most successful R&B artists of the past thirty years. To further the point, take some time to listen to Aussie soul sensation Electric Empire, one of the soul revelations of the past couple of years. These guys recorded their debut album live in the studio with a tiny budget yet managed to emulate their heroes while delivering something spirited and fresh, thanks to their conviction and and a deeper connection to their inspirations.
All Rounds on Me sees our hero having a stab at old school R&B, but ends up sounding like bargain basement, sub-Shakin’ Stevens styled rock n’ soul. The quasi-school talent show Chubby Checker inspired Party Jumpin’ perhaps represents the album’s nadir with an artificial arrangement that makes the theme tune to Saved By The Bell sound like a rock n’ roll classic. Some may find it heartening that R’s embracing ‘real music’ on this new release, but the leaden arrangements and passing nod to live instrumentation only deepen the sense that he’s not as well versed in the classics as he pretends to be. However, some of the performances are compelling (if not exactly soulful), such as on Believe In Me, which deviates from the album’s general tone, showing the man’s real strength: contemporary R&B/pop. R also sounds more comfortable on the slow jam Green Light. But the cut’s yet another retread of the Isley Brothers vibe Kelly began to pilfer on 12 Play, which directly led to Ronald Isley taking on the lamentable persona of gangster-perv, Mr Biggs; an unforgivable crime against soul music.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of R Kelly’s output since the nineties and own more than enough of his albums to suffer the ridicule of my cooler friends. But Write Me Back is lazy, marketing led music. In the same way the Kelz has ploughed a furrow of decreasing returns with 12 play (TP2.com or TP3Reloaded anyone?), he seems intent to do it with Love Letter, which, while hardly bursting with classic material to rival the output of his heroes Gaye and Cooke, was, all told, a solid album for a mainstream soul artist. Write Me Back, however, is average at best and derivative and flat at worst.
As a footnote, this review only deals with the standard edition of the album, as available on iTunes. In another middle-finger to the fans, the record company has seen fit to release the album in two versions, with the Deluxe (more expensive) edition including a further four cuts. This sadly seems to be standard fare for the majors these days. It shows contempt for the music buyer and, in this case, further underlines the sense that Write Me Back is just another collection of tracks thrown together, rather than a solid album designed to be consumed as a whole.