Album Review

Passion for R&B undiminished

(Michael N. Todaro/Getty Images/File 2009)
December 20, 2010

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What has been obscured by R. Kelly’s reputation — and the salacious nature of his music — is the fact that he’s always been a terrific R&B formalist. If anyone doubted that, the superstar makes it abundantly clear here, as this is as much a love letter to classic R&B as it is to some imagined paramour. It’s a back-to-basics collection of beautifully sung and arranged tracks emphasizing romance and devotion. The only discordant note is “Taxi Cab,’’ a sexcapade fever dream that should have been saved for the next chapter in his horn-dog confessions. Otherwise, the songs are subtle and affecting. “When a Woman Loves’’ is, undoubtedly, the best R&B vocal performance of this year, and “Radio Message’’ finds Kelly singing with both passion and restraint. The musical ensemble — including keyboards, horns, and splashes of strings — complements Kelly’s vocal flights and impeccable, expressive phrasing. The ever savvy singer-songwriter reconfigures one of the best cuts, the title track, as a Christmas song (“A Love Letter Christmas’’), but it comes off as celebratory instead of calculated. The disc may have a retro vibe but this is no genre exercise. It’s just one of the best R&B artists stripping things down and showing you how it should be done. (Out now)


ESSENTIAL “When a Woman Loves’’