Part of the reason so many rock-oriented listeners tend to misunderstand R. Kelly has to do with a crucial difference between rock and pop, or at the very least, rock and R&B. So much art-rock can be serious to a fault — think Radiohead, a great band so unrelentingly dour that it was newsworthy when Flying Lotus recently told Rolling Stone that Thom Yorke cracks jokes. Kelly, by contrast, is a consummate entertainer who’s unafraid to showcase his tremendously supple voice, tap into all-too-real emotions via immaculately constructed songs, and act a fool — sometimes all at once. Forget “Trapped in the Closet”: Watch him donning opera garb for “Feelin’ on Yo Booty,” from the R. Kelly Live! – The Light It Up Tour concert doc, and you’ll understand why attempts to parody the Pied Piper of R&B are embarrassingly clueless. The R. knows he’s funny, guys.
Kelly’s latest album, Write Me Back, contains a few songs that once again capture his ability to make great pop that works on more dimensions than most self-consciously “serious” artists must think possible. One of these is the future wedding-reception standard “Share My Love,” a ’70s-style disco-soul with an indelible “populate!” shout-along. Another is the similarly lightly funky, Michael Jackson-ish, single-feeling “Feelin’ Single,” which now has a video fully in the spirit of that documentary footage of Kelly in opera raiment crooning how he “want(s) to fondle you.”
The “Feelin’ Single” clip mostly shows a shades-wearing Kellz lip-syncing the song as his scarf flutters in some kind of studio breeze, interspersed with images of the singer and his girl out separately at the club. “I might as well get out and mingle,” Kelly explains, in a near-“populate” moment of lyrical perfection. As if realizing that in itself wouldn’t be enough to top the “Share My Love” video, Kelly goes one step further, inserting a new interlude alluding to the Broadway musical Chicago. “An old-timer told me there’s 20 fish in the sea / I’m goin’ swimmin’,” Kelly goofs, amid plenty of Broadway-ready choreography. It’s the type of wonderfully over-the-top touch that we don’t necessarily expect from our entertainers, but when we get it, it’s something to celebrate, not to mock. Paradoxically, Kelly’s humor is vulnerable and generous in a way that poe-faced gloom almost never is.