The first words out of R. Kelly’s mouth on TP.3 Reloaded, an album still shuddering in the wake of Jay-Z’s pepper spray, a sexual fall from grace and a quick diversion into the Christian soul market, hit like summer thunder: “I hope ya’ll got ya’ll’s player’s cards. ‘Cause ya’ll ain’t getting in … Unless you do.”

After courtrooms and the tabernacle, R. Kelly is right where he’s supposed to be: in the VIP and right between your legs.

The song that delivers that breeze of a first line, “Players Only,” is Kelly’s sexual comfort zone: a pseudo-Moroccan squeal (courtesy of Scott Storch), plenty of ass-movement instructions and even a B-list rapper, The Game, who tries to tame his street barks into come-hither couplets. Its allure is akin to watching a friend ditch a girlfriend and leap headfirst into his old life of trysts and booze-riddled Fridays: It just feels right.

That may be funny, but it’s not a joke. Don’t classify Kelly and all his frequently spellbinding talent as ironic; alongside D’Angelo, he happens to be the best R&B/soul singer since Marvin got shot by his dad. Kelly’s libido is no different that any of the greats: he finds sex in everything and everything in sex. TP.3 Reloaded isn’t a great album, it’s too blown up with patches of woeful filler (the dullest dancehall moment in recent history, “Reggae Bump Bump,” to start), but it’s memorable for its pure, fuck-everyone-who-isn’t-on-board mentality.

“Sex In The Kitchen” leaked early and became the filthy, brilliant herald of this album: It turns a Chris Rock routine about Kelly’s sex tape into perhaps the most insane, luridly powerful vocal bridge in a decade. You’ll never look at a kitchen in quite the same way.

But take Kelly seriously because he’ll sing about sex from every angle: infidelity, animal lust, monogamy in ways no one else will. Take him seriously because he can reach deep into his voice — full, adroit and honeyed in the same turn — and apologize to his woman on “Kickin’ It With Your Girlfriend” before fucking her in a T-shirt and writing a song about it.

TP.3 doesn’t seem like a look back, though the album title references his first hit album 12 Play. This is a heartening, if a little rushed, return to his natural state. The operatic in scope “Trapped In The Closet” series leans less on the repetitive piano chords and prose-poetry of Kelly than it does on its own titanic self-conviction. Name another person in America who puts a five-part (!) romantic drama on the radio and makes a video accompanying each piece. All these recent diversions have finally brought us home: Sex is to Kelly what history was for W.H. Auden, the one limitless place in the universe. And that is certainly worth getting a player’s card for.


Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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