R. Kelly doesn’t have time to waste on subtlety; he’s too busy pleasing a partner (or several) in bed. That’s the essence of Black Panties, his 14th solo album and his triumphant return to raunch after about four years of mostly agreeable retro-soul and Chicago stepping. Don’t expect to play this one out loud in the office, unless that office is in a strip club.
The opening salvo, a lascivious Ludacris-assisted track called “Legs Shakin’,” sets the tone: Kelly’s signature rolling melodies and harmonies are matched with NSFW premises that are alternately literal-minded and conceptual. His vocals are as strong as ever, betraying none of the feared side effects of the emergency throat surgery he underwent in 2011. Kelly’s voice in such top form that his doctors earn a shout out on the self-aggrandizing, hater-chastising “Shut Up,” and he wields it as effectively as ever, with a falsetto here and a deep tremble there.
More than any of his peers, Kelly is interested in the mechanics of sex. He never tires of the subject and that, coupled with his inimitable knack for devising increasingly ridiculous metaphors for the act — “Showed her the Jesus piece now she got the Holy Ghost”; “I’mma be your addiction/ Doctor Kama Sutra fillin’ in your prescription” — can be as compelling as is his understanding of hooks and how to embed them into a listener’s brain. “Marry the Pussy,” the most absurd song of the album and perhaps of the year, is an effusive ode that anthropomorphizes female anatomy to near-hallucinatory effect.
Of course, none of this is new. Black Panties‘ only significant departure from previous projects is Kelly’s co-opting of current trap-rap trends. The use of aggressive, double-time drums and chopped-and-screwed vocals comes across as weak-kneed at times, but is ultimately more convincing than similar attempts by others in his age group. Future, Migos, Juicy J and DJ Mustard all show up to lend the album an extra dose of 2013-ness, and he uses their talents well. Still, much of the songwriting feels perfunctory and the concepts unambitious for a man who’s already proven he can write engaging songs off the cuff. One can’t help but wonder what a more inspired Kelly could deliver.