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R. Kelly, ‘Write Me Back’ (RCA)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Label: RCA

Even without his recent, more literal throwback moves, R. Kelly had already become retro. Once famously known as the Pied Piper of R&B, Robert Sylvester Kelly hasn’t been leading the genre anywhere since it largely started marching to hyperkinetic Euro-dance beats in past decade. Instead, he dipped into his hot tub time machine to produce 2010’s Love Letter, a winning homage to classic soul from the 1950s and ’60s sans his signature freakaliciousness. Now, Write Me Back takes things ahead another decade, with ’70s musical cues recalling the Philly International sound, the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and the Isleys. If Kelly’s gonna go retro, he’s going all the way. As usual.

The pretense isn’t new, of course. Amy Winehouse made an entire career updating the Ronettes with post-hip-hop bon mots like “What kind of fuckery is this? You made me miss the Slick Rick gig.” Raphael Saadiq meticulously recreated Motown sounds on 2008’s The Way I See It, all the way down to his David Ruffin-esque eyeglasses. The whole 1990s neo-soul movement, which ran in tandem with Kelly’s biggest, most salacious hits, owed its raison d’être to ’70s soul superstars like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. (In concert, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo regularly covered Chaka Khan, the Ohio Players, and Al Green, to make the lineage crystal clear.)

But imitation is the sincerest form of biting, and R. Kelly refuses to go down that route entirely. The strings on Write Me Back highlights like “When a Man Lies” don’t sound big and lush like Gamble and Huff’s; they’re more of the synthesized variety. And aside from a few Barry White-ish yeah, babes on the rave-up “Love Is” and his Smokey Robinson-like falsetto on “Fool for You,” he doesn’t vocally copy anyone in particular, staying in own lane while speeding down the ’70s-soul highway.

Sometimes the best results, though, come when Kelly drops the exercise completely. “Believe in Me” could have fit on 2003’s Chocolate Factory or anything else from his au courant heyday, and it works. The track could form musical bookends with Badu’s classic “Otherside of the Game,” where she laments losing her man to the drug trade; told from the P.O.V. of a lover about to leave his woman for a jail bid, Kelly once again excels at what he does best, embodying elements of the (oft-downtrodden) blue-collar African-American experience. He captures the joy of that experience, though, too, changing the flavor of the uptempo “Believe That It’s So” halfway through, switching over to more of a Chicago-stepper rhythm, as Kelly intones, “I had a little too much to drink!” over and over. It’s easy to picture the song’s quintessential listener as a partying, overindulgent groomsman at a rollicking black wedding who’s had too many Long Island Iced Teas. That guy’ll love Write Me Back to death.

Meanwhile, “Feelin’ Single” could be something from Off the Wall (this from the man who once wrote and produced Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”), but mainly for its pop-R&B breeziness rather than any paint-by-numbers simulation. A critic once opined that R. Kelly writes songs as easily as mere humans rearrange living room furniture, and that’s never been truer than now: His 11th studio album comes 19 years after his 12 Play debut, and he’s long since mastered his muse well enough to set himself a task like “do a 1970s album” and execute it flawlessly in his sleep. The true trick is that the results still sound like him, instead of some ’70s caricature, or an aural Austin Powers character (a fate that’s befallen many talented artists, like, say, Saddiq).

Write Me Back does fall short sometimes, with generic filler like “Party Jumpin'” and “Green Light.” The rockabilly of “All Rounds on Me” — with its Ray Charles organ, ticklin’ piano solo, and alternating blues arrangement — sounds far more ’50s than ’70s. (A Love Letter outtake, maybe?) But Kelly’s intent goes over like gangbusters. Like the vulgarity-free version of a ribald rap album, the result distills the melodies and lyrical flair fans love without the NC-17 lines that often make Kelly NSFW.

Still, those NC-17 lines are the other thing he does best, and even Marvin Gaye released lewd singles like “You Sure Love to Ball” (full of simulated sex sounds!) circa 1974. Similarly, Kelly has crafted a career full of both industry respectability (Grammys galore, plus pop productions for MJ, Britney Spears, et al.) and more tawdry shenanigans, personal and professional (see the so-bad-it’s-bad hip-hopera “Trapped in the Closet”). A self-explanatorily titled full-length called Black Panties was reportedly jettisoned so that Write Me Back could be born, which is a shame, but retro concept albums may serve Kelly best at this point, until the cyclical R&B timetable turns back towards the days of “I Believe I Can Fly.” Meanwhile, just wait until he gets his hands on a Yamaha DX7 and a LinnDrum machine for the inevitable ’80s follow-up. Postage Paid?