It would not be unreasonable to regard R. Kelly's revisionist-soul album Love Letter as a plea for sanity in an era of mediocre chart-toppers, especially if one considers that, as the single most influential figure in R&B of the last two decades, he is in many ways the father of them all. Since its release coincided with R. Kelly's involvement in a number of high profile sex scandals–as well as his general emotional combustion–the 90-minute hip-hopera Trapped in the Closet was regarded more as a campy self-parody than the peerless and innovative masterpiece that history will reveal it to be.

Ironically, one of the more unfortunate drawbacks of R. Kelly's attenuated cache as an artist–either attributable to his never-ending legal woes or the sheer fact that, at 43, he's been around for quite a long time and is no longer the merciless chart-dominator he once was–is that, apparently unable to source an actual string section, he is forced to rely upon (in some cases very cheesy-sounding) synthesizers for this tribute to classic soul, rendering it not all that much of a throwback. Since he was unable to accurately duplicate the sound of classic recordings by Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, he settles for retro album art and a decidedly sentimental and significantly toned-down approach: gone–though I'm sure not for long–are the hypersexual themes of his early efforts. In this way does the album harken back to a happier–pappier–era of rhythm and blues music, though the use of the hammy synths does make for some severe cognitive dissonance at times.

Starting off the proceedings strongly is humble, almost slight "Love Letter." Perhaps the "cutest" record Robert Kelly has ever cut, it finds him strongly channeling Stevie Wonder–a comparison reinforced by the obvious allusion to the latter's iconic early-'60s hair and clothing style in Love Letter's album art–and staving off the over-emotional, chest-pounding R. Kelly-isms for the final stretch. (The album also features what R. Kelly terms "a Christmas remix" of the same song.) Though it lacks as strong a hook, the perhaps peremptorily titled "Number One Hit" is nearly just as good as the previous track–but also perhaps a bit too stylistically similar to it to be considered a welcome successor. The track is also slightly marred by the strained vocals of R. Kelly, whose attempts to push his low-tenor to Michael Jackson-like heights while maintaining a "seductive" whisper for the duration of a four-minute song falter more often than they prosper. Much stronger–but, whether as a result of the production constraints or general boredom, still sounding much like the previous two tracks–is "Not Feelin' The Love", which begins with a slightly creepy skit presumably intended to depict an intimate chat between two lovers, but that actually sounds a bit like R. Kelly talking to himself. Oddly, this one appears to be more of a tribute to early-'90s neo soul–the genre which R. Kelly helped to invent–than anything produced by Stax or Motown. It is, nevertheless, a welcome addition to any chapter in soul music's history.

One of the strangest qualities of this album is that, in its attempt to invoke the sounds of the pre-synthesizer era on a shoestring budget–in other words, through the use of some noticeably outdated tech–the finished product ends up invoking early '80s R&B and the Quiet Storm more than anything else; in other words, the work of artists like Billy Ocean and Whitney Houston, which integrated the signature stylistic tropes of R&B into a then-state of the art production aesthetic. Strongly testifying to this characteristic are the quite good "Lost In Your Love" and "Just Like That"–as well the less impressive "Just Can't Get Enough"–which would have made just as much sense had they been released by Lionel Richie in his heyday.

The first significant departure from this style is the fractured, funk guitar-driven "Taxi Cab", which doesn't seem to invoke any particular genre, past or present, and is, perhaps for this reason, one of the strongest tracks on the album. The track finds Kelly making use of percussive instruments–both live and sampled–not as a means of time-keeping but in a manner similar to that of the timpani in orchestral music: to add emphasis and depth of sound. Though it's one of the least interesting tracks on the album, "Radio Message" features an exquisite vocal performance by Kelly.

The album's first single, "When a Woman Loves"–both in title and composition, a tribute to the similarly titled Percy Sledge classic, "When a Man Loves a Woman"–is rather disappointing. Its synth-horns are almost laughably stupid; similarly, when he attempts to replicate the grandiose string arrangements of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles on tracks like "Music Must Be a Lady" and "How Do I Tell Her?" the budgetary limitations tend to undercut his good intentions. Invoking Marvin Gaye's famous trilogy of duet albums with Tammi Terrell is the excellent "Love Is," with R. Kelly playing the role of the former and someone named K. Michelle taking up that of the latter, on a track which consciously references the songwriting style of longtime Gaye/Terrell collaborators Ashford & Simpson.

Leave a comment

Read more about: