R. Kelly at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater
In an era of declining songwriting skills and auto tune crooning, R. Kelly embodies the best traditions of American music as a vocalist, songwriter and producer. He uses classic materials to create music as contemporary as Siri’s iPhone voice. Despite selling millions of recordings and writing classic songs for himself and many others, this Chicago based singer-songwriter continues to push his art forward with Write Me Back, a dynamic twelve song collection that is part of his extraordinary 2012 — The Year of the R.
Along with his remarkable new album, R. Kelly is publishing his first memoir, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, and is reteaming with IFC this Fall to add chapters to his innovative hip-hop opera Trapped in the Closet, which was an early 21st century cultural phenomenon.
Write Me Back continues the homage to classic soul/R&B that distinguished 2010’s critically acclaimed Love Letter. But where that album celebrates the music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, this has a wider collection of musical inspirations, going to sounds that echo Ray Charles, while evoking the passionate magic of Teddy Pendergrass, Barry White and Michael Jackson among many others. The content and the title of this new recording were definitely inspired by the triumph of the previous album.
The songs on Write Me Back do not simply pay homage to older styles, but evoke a myriad of influences at the same time and in the process create something pleasing and new. “I have many directions I still wanna go in musically,” he says of where he is creatively. “This just happened to be a direction I choose for now because the first album did so well people started asking me if I was gonna be doing any other songs like that. Through those questions I found a second wind of inspiration in the area of doing the classic R&B type of songs.”
The tasty array of musical influences R. Kelly transforms and reinvents ranges through the history of classic soul. “Love Is,” “Share My Love” and “Lady Sunday” evoke the lush, danceable sound of Philadelphia. “Feeling Single” and “Believe That It’s So” effortlessly mash up echoes of Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder. “All Rounds OnMe” has a blues feel that Ray Charles would envy, while “Fool For You” has that classic Motown Sound. “Green Light” will make fans of the Isley Brothers happy, while “Party Jumpin’” captures the seriously fun late night spirit of a live Sam Cooke show. Both “When A Man Lies” and “Believe InMe” are powerhouse songs poised to join the canon of R. Kelly standards.
In an era where hip hop has overshadowed R&B as mainstream music, R. Kelly has reinforced his credentials as “the R in R&B.” He speaks candidly about the state of that venerable music culture and his role as a keeper of the flame. “I don’t mean to sound bold but I speak the truth, especially when I speak about R&B music,” he says humbly. “R&B has, in some ways been abandoned and it’s being used in areas when people see fit to maybe put a hook on a rap song to blow up a rap song. Now, I don’t knock that hustle, but if we’re gonna respect R&B when it comes to rap, then it deserves to stand on its own as well.”
Alongside his new album, R. Kelly explores yet another outlet for his creative hand with the release of his memoir Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me published by SmileyBooks, an imprint owned by noted broadcaster and publisher Tavis Smiley. R’s first book has allowed the singer-songwriter to define himself and dig deep into his life story.
“When you become a celebrity and a legend in the field that you’re in, everybody thinks they know you and people form opinions about you without really knowing who you are,” he observes. “Nobody really knows you until they know the things you’ve been through. The only way to do that was to tell my story. In life there are two sides to every story, but unfortunately in my case there are about forty different sides to the story.”
The singer makes a big distinction between R. Kelly the star and Robert Kelly the human being. “They already know who R. Kelly is. They know R. Kelly performs and they know he’s written and produced hit songs for himself and other people. But I felt it was time they met Robert, the mama’s boy, Robert the brother, Robert the father and most of all Robert the person.”
Between Write Me Back and Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, the stage has been set for the expression of new and unexpected dimensions of R. Kelly’s intimate, compelling, and soul-filled artistry.