VIDEO: R. Kelly featuring Usher, "Same Girl"
The easiest way out with R. Kelly — as with Bill Clinton or Paris Hilton — is sex jokes. Music critics all know this, and that’s why no one has written about his latest album, Double Up (Jive), without mentioning the 14 counts of child pornography Kells has been facing for five years — usually in the first paragraph. (Far be it from this review to break with tradition.) Kelly has had a talent for making frankly carnal come-ons of a piece with sincere lover-man balladry since the beginning of his career, but the alleged non-legal sex acts, the postponed court dates, the videotape — they’ve all helped turn his song-slinging persona into a real-world joke. And Double Up has no less than three hilariously metaphorical sex jams: “The Zoo” (monkey sounds, Kells as Sexasaurus); “Sweet Tooth” (“You lookin’ like a big ol’ piece of cake”); “Sex Planet” (rocket ships, Uranus, etc.). Hey, even the album title is a euphemism for a three-way. Is this guy ridiculous or what?
Well, yes. Yet somehow, Kells is as compelling as ever. No question that he’s worthy of ridicule if all the allegations against him are true. And “Sex Planet” is a bonkers song. But what really comes through on Double Up — aside from his voice, which remains a thrilling, melodically unpredictable instrument — is how honest and self-depreciating the guy is, about both his serious failures and the lighter immaturities. You telling me the guy responsible for the “hip-hopera” “Trapped in the Closet” (more “chapters” coming soon!) doesn’t know what he’s doing? Please.
So, first of all, the sex jams. Me, I like the spoken intro to “Sex Planet,” where Kelly decides to get old-fashioned before turning all astro-freaky: “I don’t know man, maybe I may have missed somethin.’ Maybe y’all know somethin’ I don’t know, but I like slow dancin’ in the clubs.” Even the modified tone of his speaking voice makes him sound old-fashioned — and he means to. It harks back to 1994-’95, when “Bump N Grind” and “You Remind Me of Something” actually were getting people to slow-dance in the clubs. So when the sex planet starts orbiting and Kelly is singing about tasting your Milky Way, I laugh and think he’s crazy. But I’m also thinking that there’s something direct and spontaneous — human — about Kelly’s sex talk, more awkward and blunt than eloquent. I can’t discount that sly intro. He knows this kind of song doesn’t really work these days.
Human is an adjective that comes to mind a lot on Double Up, never more so than on “Real Talk,” which is the album’s best song after the more conventionally hooky and tuneful “I’m a Flirt.” Riding a slow-burn, strings-heavy instrumental, Kelly rages and stutter-steps all over a telephone break-up with his girlfriend, who just may have heard the album’s title track. Your friends “don’t eat with us,” he tells her, and it comes off like a too-intimate detail, something you wouldn’t have ever overheard except that two people are in the process of self-destructing at each other. It’s funny, sad, scary, and moving all at once. Maybe it’s mainstream R&B’s reluctance to talk about relationships in anything but the vaguest terms, but Kelly is one of the few pop stars around whom I can imagine falling in love with a real person. When Akon’s robot tenor intones “I wanna love you” to a stripper, there’s nothing behind it. When R. Kelly tells a woman that her, uh, ladyparts taste like Skittles — well, it’s weird as hell. But he means it.