On the standard edition cover of his most recent album, Black Panties, R. Kelly, wearing a “Phantom of the Opera” mask, plays an almost naked woman like a violin. It’s a fitting cover, considering that maybe no other artist in the history of popular music has dedicated the entirety of his or her work to worshiping the female form and everything that comes with it. For his past two albums, 2010’s Love Letter and 2012’s Write Me Back, however, Kelly ditched his sex-riddled lyrics and sang in a traditional R&B form, making music more appropriate for a romantic and smoky 1960s jazz joint than a strip club in his native Chicago.

Black Panties

R. Kelly

That being said, while both albums were well received by critics, Kelly’s original fan base quietly clamored for the real R. Kelly, the self-professed “Pied Piper of R&B” who, on “Etcetera” off of 1998’s R., once begged his lover to hit the IHOP with him after a night of love making. R. Kelly has sold over 54 million records worldwide, been nominated for 24 Grammys and has a voice second to none, but — just as importantly — he has also created, defined and perfected a truly vulgar, incredible and addictive form of bedroom music that is unlike any other released in the history of R&B and pop music.

Black Panties, friends, is the return of the R. Kelly who has been missing for the past four years. It doesn’t matter that he’s 46 years old or coming off vocal chord surgery. Nothing matters when you’re R. Kelly and you’re including an actual pair of black panties in the pre-order of your new album. This man was meant to sing sex music, and respectability be damned, he’s going to do it.

The album begins with two songs dedicated to cunnilingus — because how else should an album called Black Panties start? “Do it ’til ya legs shakin’, ” Kelly sings on the chopped-and-screwed opener while Ludacris holds nothing back, bragging that “my tongue is like a Jacuzzi jet.”

What’s provided here in clever songwriting is, unfortunately, oftentimes undermined by sub-par and recycled production. Kelly is a great producer, but the beats on this album are underwhelming and sound like throwaways from past projects. “My Story” is more like an unfinished demo, while the lazy production on “All the Way” wastes a solid Kelly Rowland feature.

DJ Mustard, probably the most in-demand producer in rap right now, laces “Spend That” with his signature sparse piano, speaker-rattling bass and background chants. Kelly more or less pioneered the art of singing over hard-hitting hip-hop beats and he has no problems doing it to perfection on “Spend That.” What is slightly problematic, however, is a 46-year-old man singing about throwing money and making it twerk, and while it doesn’t feel too forced, it does make you wonder if it’s necessary.

The album is frustratingly choppy at times, probably due to Kelly’s many attempts to appeal to a new audience, as he does on “Spend That.” The inevitable question, then, is how Kelly fits into the sound of R&B today. He can sing fine with the auto-tune, but he’s no Future, and his past music is more of an influence on artists like Frank Ocean and Miguel than it is relevant. Kelly’s original fan base, which was in its early 20s for his first album, is now in its 40s. Who does he still appeal to? What is the genuine R. Kelly sound in 2013?

The album’s centerpieces, “Marry the Pussy” and “Genius,” answer just that: two timeless and distinctive songs that only R. Kelly could make. “Genius” has Kelly proclaiming himself a sex genius over a dripping, sultry drumbeat and perfectly straddles the all too familiar line between vulgar absurdity and genuine romanticism.

“Marry the Pussy” is probably the craziest song of the year, and though Kelly has a long and documented history of explicit ridiculousness, this one ranks near the top. He wholeheartedly personifies the pussy in question, and it’s not really clear whether or not he’s using “pussy” to represent a woman or if he is actually in fact proposing to someone’s vagina. “Pussy, would you marry me?” he pleads over a tranquil harp riff, bringing to mind a hilarious image that Dave Chappelle would have certainly parodied if he were still on air.

“Come on dawg … how many babies have been made off me?” Kelly asks on album-closer and standout “Shut Up.” A swelling and passionate dedication to his fans delivered in his trademark half-singing half-talking cadence, Kelly tells his haters and doubters to shut up while also reminding people of everything he has accomplished over the past 20 years. His vocals sound as strong as they’ve ever been, the production builds, and as he asserts, “it’s not the end of the hourglass,” you have no reason but to trust him completely.

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