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R. Kelly’s Sexy But Troubling ‘Black Panties’ Is a Throwback for Both Good and Ill

R. Kelly / Photo by Ellie Pritts
SPIN Rating: 5 of 10
Release Date: December 10, 2013
Label: RCA

One secret to R. Kelly’s confounding stardom: his sunglasses. He wears them more often than not, sporting them on nearly each of his 12 solo-album covers, including Black Panties’ superstud-swimming-in-a-pool-of-naked-ladies tableau. Dark shades are the Chicago native’s hip veil; he generally doesn’t want you staring directly into his eyes and peering into his soul. Because you might not want to find out that a peerless soul man might not actually have one.

On one hand, you can’t fuck with R. Kelly’s creative output. He’s a 44-year-old, one-man, self-contained hit machine, a prolific mastermind with an otherworldly work ethic — easily the most influential male R&B performer/producer of the past 20 years next to unprolific genius D’Angelo. Kelly’s diverse skill set even might be unparalleled in R&B history: He can churn out inspirational treacle like “I Believe I Can Fly” just as effortlessly as he can deliver an album of adult-contemporary steppin’ music, or a stark gospel ballad for Whitney Houston, or retro 1950s and 1960s material. Dude has range.

But we can’t leave it there. Kelly is also an alleged scumbag with a long list of infamous, alleged transgressions that, while never resulting in a legal conviction, still continue to add a troubling, mythical dimension to Kelly’s neo-blaxploitation stud image, whether or not those allegations are true. Unfazed, Kelly has managed to rebrand himself during the past decade as a conceptualist auteur, extending the campy theatrical tradition of classic R&B acts like the Coasters, Blowfly, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Prince, and Millie Jackson to produce the multi-part pop opera Trapped in the Closet, which, at 33 episodes and more on the way, happens to be R&B’s most durable and experimental project, its cliffhangers mirroring the serialization and batch-rollout of television in the era of Lost and House of Cards.

Kelly’s loopy opera also has had an unintended outcome: It’s allowed him to upgrade street cred for artiste cred. Today, hipster millenials see Kells as more than an aging R&B veteran: He’s a train-wreck savant, in the same way Lil B is a visionary genius and Charlie Sheen is an industry rebel. I suspect that die-hard Kells fans who dig him without a shred of complication have never mustered much empathy for the young girls he allegedly has victimized. Would the response be quite so devil-may-care if Kelly’s teen sexual targets had been underage white girls exclusively?

Adding further complications, 2010’s Love Letters and 2012’s Write Me Back were awe-inspiring throwback albums, riding on robust songwriting and artisanal production. But they didn’t sell units. It’s been 20 years since the release of 12 Play, the bawdy solo debut that put Kelly on the map. Back then, his style was a perverse new jack swing-influenced quiet storm, drawing its risqué sensibility as much from obscene Miami bass as Atlanta’s Freaknik. In crafting Black Panties, then, Kelly saw a commercial opportunity to recharge his sex-god persona and put out a sequel.

But the meaning of “perversity” in 2013 ain’t the same, not when Azealia Banks throws around the word “cunt” as if it were a term of endearment and sexually explicit indie films like Blue Is the Warmest Color have found a way to market an NC-17 rating to their advantage. Kelly’s solution to staying relevant is to rekindle public nostalgia for the pioneering role he played in the mainstreaming of explicit sex that typified R&B and hip-hop’s commercial peak in the ’90s. But if memory serves, that cultural moment was also rife with misogyny and homophobia: It wasn’t a particularly progressive time for women or gays. Black Panties’ retro-crudeness reconfirms that Kells has always been edgier than today’s stylized pop-soul stars like Justin Timberlake or Bruno Mars, but you can’t exactly call that progress.

The rough-sex tunes do serve a valid purpose: to get you aroused in the bedroom, or in the strip-club bathroom, or on top of the washing machine. Self-aware Kells still doesn’t see anything wrong with a little bump and grind (“Let’s be honest: How many babies been made off me,” he brags on “Shut Up”). Hallelujah: I have no interest in sex-negative puritanism, either. At its best, or at least its most benign, the album has some sexy moments, even if they don’t amount to much more than standard-fare braggadocio. On “Every Position” Kelly calls himself “Dr. Kama Sutra / Filling your prescription”; on “Crazy Sex,” he wants to “get ratchet” and explore a myriad of kinky positions.

But Black Panties wears its parental-advisory sticker like a badge in a way that makes 12 Play seem vanilla: Invectives like “bitch” and “nigga” make a few too many appearances here. On an alarming number of tracks, the sex is violent, pugilistic, or transactional. “Tear It Up,” for instance, features Kelly talking about fucking his woman so hard that the bed is broken; on “Cookie,” he brags about beating the pussy up “until its blue,” eating it out like an Oreo, “killing the pussy,” and breaking it open “like a lobster.” No doubt Kelly craves all manner of vagina, but he evidences no passion for mutual affection, or any real commitment or deep feeling with an actual human partner. If we’re supposed to treat the sexual viciousness as comedy, just another strategic turn in his arsenal of poses, what exactly is the joke, and who is the joke on?

Black Panties also happens to be a serious musical step backwards from the melodious Write Me Back. The production is suitably retro 1990s-meets-contemporary-hip-hop: Synth strings and gated drums are matched to pitched-down, chopped & screwed vocals. But the songwriting is the big problem: These are serviceable but mediocre and tuneless slow jams. Then again, no one thinks of 12 Play‘s “I Like the Crotch on You” as lyrically or musically transcendent, either.

This album arrives on the heels of the success of “Do What U Want,” Kelly’s hit duet with partner-in-all-things-theatrical-and-perverse Lady Gaga. At November’s American Music Awards, the pair performed it live and delivered the sharply observed, transgressive performance of the year: She played a White House receptionist, somewhere between Marilyn Monroe and Monica Lewinsky, caught in a tempestuous affair with President R. Kelly. There was great humor and irony in likening Kelly to a philandering Kennedy or Clinton. But nobody will ever believe him as an Obama figure. Blunt and crass, 2013’s Black Panties is all about selling nostalgia for a bygone age of hard-body sexist black machismo that Barack Obama is, in his own quiet way, helping to deflate. Watching R. Kelly sit behind the desk at a pretend Oval Office and pretend to mack with a spastic Lady Gaga, I have never been more humorously aware of him as a fraud. He just happens to be a skilled and talented one.