Following two appearances at the Coachella and Pitchfork musical festivals this past summer-and after being featured on Justin Bieber’s “PYD” and Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want”-R. Kelly ends his eventful year with the release of his 12th solo album, Black Panties. The 46-year-old R&B legend steps away from the soulful approach of his last two records and attempts to return to the aggressively sexual style with which he made his name on the new album. Black Panties features an intriguing mix of tracks including, but certainly not limited to, “Legs Shakin,” “Marry the P-y,” “Show Ya P-y,” “Tear it Up,” “Crazy Sex,” and “Cookie”-in the last of which, Kelly explains that he “love(s) to lick the middle like an Oreo.” With these words, R. Kelly likely will change forever the way you look at America’s favorite cookie.
On tracks like “Show Ya P-y” and “My Story,” the use of auto-tune masks R. Kelly’s smooth and soulful vocals, as featured hip-hop artists Migos, Juicy J, and 2 Chainz provide a whole new, less effective sound, which diverges from the authenticity of vintage R. Kelly. The smooth and exciting sound we heard in songs such as “Ignition,” “I Believe I Can Fly,” and “I’m a Flirt” seem to be a thing of the past.
Although the album features a couple of tracks uncharacteristic of R. Kelly’s career, the album does display pieces of the sex-obsessed and passionate R. Kelly we all know and love. R. Kelly scraps the auto-tune effect on tracks like “Genius” and “All the Way,” and he allows his vocal talents and provocative lyrics to take control.
While the record does provide some enjoyable tracks, Black Panties does not provide the complexity that R. Kelly’s past works have. Instead, the listener gets a decent R&B album that ultimately feels a little bit empty and contrived. Seldom do its songs offer any sort of story or include the intricacies of past albums. Although the raw sexuality of R. Kelly is certainly present, the character of his work is lost. Throughout, there exists a simplicity uncharacteristic of R. Kelly that shows somewhat of a loss of individuality.
The 13th track on the album, “Shut Up,” stands out amid the almost entirely sex-based collective. On the track, R. Kelly discusses the throat surgery he underwent in 2011 and denounces his critics for judging his past actions. He begins by thanking his fans, God, and his doctors for helping him through the struggle-before attacking the detractors who claimed he would fail to return from the surgery. He sings, “This song goes out to all the people out there that be running they mouth / And they don’t know what the hell they saying.” R. Kelly dramatically explains to his critics that they’ve overstepped their roles in his career, and that for the sake of honesty, these critics would best mind their own business. All this is set over a slow, intense, and drawn out beat. The song is the only moment on the record truly deviating from the rest, and it is a welcome break before the somewhat vague, uninteresting, and repetitive remainder of the album.
R. Kelly claims that his new album is “the new 12Play,” bringing the sound back to his highly respected solo debut album, and yet, Black Panties is far from it. The monotonously focused, blandly recorded album does not compare to some of his more popular albums and will likely be seen as a mediocre effort from an artist of considerable respect in the R&B industry. R. Kelly does work to transition his music into a more modern, hard-hitting sound on Black Panties, and his lyrics seem to mark a return to the raunchy content and forward sexuality that made him iconic. Black Panties is listenable, but ultimately, the overwhelming banality of the project and the general absence of remarkable songs prevent it from being anything more than a thin, black layer of fabric-exposing many of Kelly’s weaknesses, but highlighting few of his strengths.