At times on his new album, Love Letter, R. Kelly is open and vulnerable in the name of being inspiring. At others, he is a comedian who may or may not know he’s telling a joke.
This juxtaposition is nothing new for Kelly, who in the past has released works like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “World’s Greatest” while also creating the infamous “Trapped in the Closet” mega-suite—a grouping of twenty-two songs that tell an insanely complicated and absurd tale of love and betrayal. Both types of songs appear on Love Letter, an album filled with all the things Kelly is know for but now in a 60’s soul package—as evidenced by the album cover of him in mid-note, wearing a tux while being drenched in yellow light.
The melodramatic cheese comes in the form of “Taxi Cab”, a song with bongo-drum percussion that’s about finding true, or not-so-true, love in the backseat of the titular form of transportation Should one smile at a chorus of “We made love in a taxi cab/It reminded me of a dream I’d had”? Or laugh at lyrics like “Then I told her we’re just 15 minutes from my home/But she didn’t stop, she kept saying it feels so incredibly wrong”?
It’s hard to tell. Kelly sings those lyrics with as much conviction as any others on Love Letter. On “Radio Message”, he begs and pleads over funky interjections of guitar and warm horns, declaring, “This is a radio message/To my baby/And I’m begging her/Come back.” It’s a song that sports the type of monster hook that all soul jams aspire to achieve.
To Kelly, such tracks have always come in bunches. The only difference is now he’s doing it in a new musical style. Motown’s stamp is all over Love Letter, never more clearly than on Grammy-nominated “When A Woman Loves”, a touching ballad that has just the right amount of bombastic instrumentation to balance its sultry arpeggio-driven groove. Kelly may be singing about an old flame—“She took me back/After I broke her heart about a thousand times”—or about his mother—“And the girl, she raised me/And I’m forever indebted to her cause”. Either way, the message is the same—“When a woman loves/She loves for real.”
On paper, the lyrics may seem lacking, but to hear Kelly sing it is to believe it. And that’s the only way to enjoy Love Letter. You’ve got to accept both sides of Kelly—the songs like “Number One Hit” where a woman is thought of in embarrassing musical terms as well as those with a simple and undeniable beat like the title track, “Love Letter”, where Kelly wonders, “Did you get my love letter?/Did it touch your heart?”
His passion, whether misguided or not, is so apparent throughout that it’s tempting to say when Kelly sings, he sings for real. But after a listen to Love Letter, it’s clear that only a true maestro can pull off a line like that. Let’s leave such proclamations to the man himself.