Music review

Music review: A look at R. Kelly's new CD, 'Untitled'

LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX: R. Kelly, right, with Pleasure P last month, focuses on the carnal in his latest CD.
LET'S TALK ABOUT SEX: R. Kelly, right, with Pleasure P last month, focuses on the carnal in his latest CD. (Kyle Gustafson For The Washingon Post)
By Allison Stewart
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"There's only two things in this world that I'm the best at, it's true/Number one is music," R. Kelly sings on "Like I Do," one of the better tracks on his new disc, "Untitled."

Go ahead, try to guess the other thing: Anyone with even a glancing knowledge of pop cultural history knows that Kelly is a walking peccadillo, an R&B icon with a complicated personal life, tried on multiple counts of child pornography last year and convicted of none.

The problem with "Untitled," his first post-acquittal release, is that it dispenses with the two things Kelly really is good at: uplifting ballads like "I Believe I Can Fly," songs that are the musical equivalents of Oprah episodes -- and Olympian feats of insanity like his long-running, midgets-mobsters-lesbians-and-pimps hip-hopera, "Trapped in the Closet."

After years of enterprising perversity (who could forget "Sex Planet"? Or "The Zoo," which envisioned Kelly as an overly amorous sexosaurus?), "Untitled" dials down the crazy, favoring less eventfully lewd bump-and-grinds like "Whole Lotta Kisses," songs that are neither superbly smoldery nor obviously farcical, just kind of lame.

For Kelly, thinking up different ways to describe the same act has been a career-long Homeric quest, but he seems to be running out of metaphors to mix. "Bangin' the Headboard" is as prosaic as it sounds. "Whole Lotta Kisses" is creepy, and not in a good way: "Bury myself all in you/As if you were my grave," Kelly promises solemnly. "As if you were my grave"? It's like he's not even trying.

"Untitled" works better when it sticks to such up-tempo tracks as the funk-and-horns-fest "Be My #2," or the sticky Keri Hilson collaboration, "Number One." The fantastic, slow-burning "Echo," with its quasi-yodeled refrain, feels like a natural extension of "Feelin' on Yo Booty."

The ballads are mostly clunkers: On "Religious," Kelly sings admiringly about his girl, at first awkwardly comparing her love to going to church, then, in history's other guaranteed mood killer, telling her, "You remind me of my mother." On the steamy slow jam "Pregnant," an otherwise standard-issue collaboration with Tyrese, Robin Thicke and The-Dream, all of whom should know better, Kelly meets a cute girl, and expresses a desire to . . . you know: "She's more than a mistress/Enough to handle my business/Now put that girl in my kitchen/Girl you make me wanna get you pregnant." A reasonable woman might feel ill upon hearing such retrograde expressions of devotion, but for Kelly, this sort of commitment is really the highest form of compliment -- he also wants a picket fence, he says, and a dog. If this were a Ne-Yo song, a girl couldn't expect anything more than a nice handbag out of the deal.

Kelly is a singular case, a writhing bucket of id without an off button. Much ink has been spilled debating whether he's in on the great carnal, cosmic joke that his career has become or whether he simply is the joke. But "Untitled" presents thornier problems: What happens when he's just dull? Is there a Rubicon of cartoon crazy that you can't come back from once you cross it? One thing's for sure: Once your career becomes defined by a sprawling, XXX-rated psychodrama in which a fainting midget is held at gunpoint, garden-variety expressions of horndoggery just aren't going to satisfy.

Stewart is a freelance writer.

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"Echo," "Number One"

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