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CD review: 'Untitled' by R. Kelly

Also reviewed: 'Stir the Blood' by the Bravery and 'Just Like You' by Allison Iraheta

December 01, 2009

R. Kelly



* *

It's tempting to read into the title of R. Kelly's first album since his acquittal on child-pornography charges last year. Is his 10th studio album since the early '90s called "Untitled" because Kelly wants to wipe the slate clean? Could it be the sign of a new beginning? An invitation to hear the artist from a fresh perspective?

Not even close.

"Untitled" is business as usual in the candle-lighted, silk-sheeted house of Kelly, which means, "sex in the morning, sex all day." And business is good. Even under a cloud of legal suspicion for six years, Kelly continued to sing about booty calls and sell millions of albums. As the most dominant producer-songwriter-singer in R&B the last two decades, the Chicago resident married a sparse, sing-songy sound and salacious subject matter into a signature style that has made him a star.

"Untitled" won't change anyone's perspective on Kelly. It's more a reminder, as he modestly crows in "Like I Do," that when it comes to lust and music he "blow(s) the competition away." Most of the time Kelly doesn't filter the bump and grind: "Ba-ba-bangin' the headboard . . . squeakin' the bed"; "I wanna be sippin' on your sweet, sweet water"; "Drip, drip, drip with the candle wax"; "And a wooo and a weee."

Kelly is the latest in a long line of R&B bedroom maestros. The Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man," Hank Ballard's "Work With Me, Annie" and Etta James' "Roll With Me Henry," were explicit odes to carnality from the Truman and Eisenhower eras. In later decades, the likes of Millie Jackson, Marvin Sease and Prince took turns out-raunching each other.

It could be argued that Kelly's brand of lewdness stands in a class by itself because he was accused of a sex crime and yet continued to make millions singing about bedroom escapades. Nonetheless, fans kept buying his records, and radio stations kept playing them. Unlike Michael Jackson, who retreated from public view when sex allegations buffeted him, Kelly just kept on writing, recording and producing music at a prolific rate.

Now that he's been acquitted, the singer doesn't do any victory dances or play any victim cards on "Untitled." He's too busy getting busy.

Though the lyrics work minor variations on smut, the voice is another matter entirely. It is pleading and needy, and yet manages to wink at itself. At other times, his tone verges on desperation, as if sex is more essential than oxygen. He massages simple (and sometimes simplistic) words into hooks through phrasing that is pliant, inventive, audacious, sometimes silly. He even yodels on "Echo," and improbably it works -- as radio candy if not enduring musical art.

That ardor is framed by music that is everything his lyrics are not: subtle, ornate, at times downright refined. As a producer and arranger, he is meticulous with detail, orchestrating hand claps, finger snaps and drum machines to create just the right rhythm backdrop for an evening of "wooo and weee." Strings, guitars and keyboards add color in carefully measured doses.

The songs never develop much beyond their initial verse and chorus and rarely bother with contrasting bridge sections, but that's the point: No jarring changes to throw off the mood. Little wonder he does so many medleys in concert; even Kelly realizes that many of his songs have limited durability outside the bedroom.

About halfway through the album, the singer expands his sound by working with a few relative newcomers. The Danish producers Soulshock and Karlin bring a Euro-disco beat to "I Love the DJ," rapper OJ Da Juiceman adds "Dirty South" hip-hop crunch to "Supaman High" and producer Jack Splash salts "Be My #2" with dance beats and sun-splashed horns. It's too bad he didn't go further with these experiments, which freshen Kelly's increasingly predictable sound and perk up the bedroom tempos.

As he usually does, the singer tosses in a couple of songs that hint at a more introspective side, that suggest he views women as something more than just sex partners to shoo away in the morning. "Religious" sings the praises of an unjustly scorned companion, over gospel piano and organ (naturally, the woman in question "reminds me of my mother" -- a recurring theme in Kelly's work when he wants to get serious). On "Elsewhere," the narrator positively trembles with regret over a failed relationship.

But at album's end, Kelly snaps out of it. "She's more than a mistress," he purrs on "Pregnant." "I'm gonna put that girl in my kitchen."

With that, he's back on the prowl.

-- Greg Kot Reaching their boiling point

The Bravery

"Stir the Blood"


* 1/2

"You can twist and scream into the air, no one can hear you here," warns the Bravery's singer Sam Endicott on an unprintably titled track about emotionless sex from the band's third album. The chorus hook approximates the feeling one takes from an hour mucking about in "Stir the Blood's" lustless, cynical dance-punk: "There will be no tenderness."

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