Chicago's most notorious R&B singer, R. Kelly, was honored earlier this month with two very different Grammy nominations. He picked up a nod for last year's confused, crowded jumble, "Untitled," for best contemporary R&B album. The lead single from this year's record, though, landed in the best traditional R&B vocal category. Titled "When a Woman Loves," it's representative of the entirety of "Love Letter" -- chock full of vocal talent that's largely squandered on perfectly pleasant but ultimately derivative songs.
"Love Letter," out Tuesday, is a love letter, indeed -- to Motown and Stax and all the singers from decades past who inspire Kelly, mainly Donny Hathaway and Michael Jackson. The arrangements take strings and piano riffs and vocal gimmicks from the best classic records, shuffle them and deal new hands for each track. MJ, in fact, echoes throughout several songs, namely "Not Feelin' the Love" and "Taxi Cab," building to passionate crescendos in which Kelly shouts, "Baby!" They're such good Jacko impersonations, each one needs a high-pitched "woo-hoo!" as punctuation.
But Kelly is smart enough not to go that far. Musically, at least, he knows when to rein himself in. Here, though, he also restrains his lyrics, perhaps as a way of softening his image -- he's kept a relatively low profile since his acquittal on child pornography charges in 2008. The freakiest "Love Letter" gets is "Taxi Cab," in which Kelly gets it on with the meter running. "She told the driver mind his business," he coos. She got him drunk on mojitos, he explains, and seduced him in the backseat: "We're just 15 minutes from my home / but she wouldn't stop / she said, 'It feels so incredibly wrong.'" The rest of the songs are practically wholesome next to the bulk of his sexually charged catalog, only getting weird when Kelly struggles for metaphors -- "I love making love to your eyes" he threatens in "No. 1 Hit," "I wanna drift far out in your waters / and get trapped in your wilderness" he sings amid other perils in "Lost in Your Love." For "Music Must Be a Lady" he personifies his musical craft and, Kells being Kells, promptly schtupps her.
The tone of "Love Letter," though, never rises above that of an infomercial for the sounds of the '60s. "When a Woman Loves," in particular, seems as if it's groping for Aaron Neville's perfection in "Tell It Like It Is," and his duet with K. Michelle on "Love Is" keeps within the template created by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. Neither generates comparative heat, though. Look to Maxwell's "BLACKsummers'night" or Janelle Monae's debut for music that brings R&B classicism into the 21st century. "Love Letter" is just not the kind of correspondence that mandates a reply.