In sweat mode: R. Kelly

“As the film credits started to roll, I couldn’t move. I burst into tears. People walking past me patted me on the back, trying to console me. The Notebook was beautiful, and I was crying because its hero and heroine had died together. But I was also crying because … my marriage had died. And there was nothing I could do to bring it back — from Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, R. Kelly’s upcoming memoir.

There’s no getting around it: the retro steez suits R. Kelly. Formalism needs forms, right? So do fantasies. Closer to the braids and flopsweat absurdity of the Rick James when his beats per minute dropped below R.E.M. levels, Kelly has served as an exceptions-to-the-rule artist for years, which puts me in the minority. Before “Trapped in the Closet,” before Aaliyah, the guy tried too damn hard; he goes soft to stay hard. So the consistent pleasure offered by 2010’s Love Letter and bits of the new Write Me Back is a surprise and relief. When I say “retro” I mean arrangements whose minimalism exposes the mechanics of verse chorus verse songwriting and the voice whose protean suppleness conflates sedution with necromancy. In effect, he unbuttons blouses by reminding the unfortunate girl of Teddy and the Isleys, an exercise that’s of course more R. Kelly than ever. But he’s not the only one working this sound. The fingersnap production ethos of Stargate that peaked on Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentlemen anchors “Feelin’ Single,” the album’s best song. A jumpin’-jumpin’ celebration of stepping out, it burns with the steady heat of early middle age; Kelly is like Dad forced to microwave a chicken pop pie when Mom’s at a bridal shower. Fantasy, in other words — Kelly’s metier.

Still, there’s something third-rate about Write Me Back. The pneumatic “Party Jumpin'” sounds like Kelly wanted to record his own version of Chubby Checker doing “The Twist” on an 1988 awards show because he liked it, while on “Love Is” he’s back in sweat mode, this time willing himself into becoming the O’Jays. Raphael Saadiq did the “You Never Can Tell” vibe of “All Rounds on Me” with more invention on last year’s Stone Rollin’. Those are the duds. Now for the good ones: the full-throated love-you-down of “Clipped Wings,” the confidence of “Feelin’ Single,” the way his croon blows smoke rings around the chorus of “Green Light.” I wouldn’t mind if Kelly sticks to this style in perpetuity, especially if by the looks of that memoir he’s still as big a fool as ever. He needs reining in — and tunes.

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