R. Kelly's 'Black Panties': What the Critics Are Saying
As one of R&B's most recognizable players, R. Kelly has built a career on promiscuousness. In recent years, however, the singer seems to have produced more controversy as a public icon than as a musician. Enter: Black Panties, Kelly's 12th solo studio album (out Dec. 10), which aims to remind listeners -- casual, loyal or otherwise -- that music comes first.
Featuring guest appearances by such hip-hop favorites as Ludacris, 2 Chainz and Juicy J, Black Panties finds the singer at a generational crossroads, fighting for his place on the charts. Kelly calls his latest album "the new 12 Play," indicating a pivot away from the softer productions of his last two records.
Both 12 Play, Kelly's 1993 debut solo album, and Black Panties accentuate sexual themes -- reconciling sensuality, passion and R&B -- but critics have expressed doubts about the artist's comparison. In fact, while the response has been mixed, reviews seem to agree on at least one point: Kelly's tracks just don't have the sex appeal that they used to.
Read on for what the critics are saying:
Rolling Stone's Brian Raftery describes Black Panties as a stylistic reversal from Kelly's last two "PG-rated" albums wherein "he stops lighting candles and starts dipping his wick." While select tracks are sure to please fans of the artist's "outsize hump-happy persona," Raftery contends that "the best moments … are when Kells tones down his lothario swagger and instead tries to seduce with subtlety." RS gives Kelly's latest 3 out of 5 stars, noting how "Panties veers too frustratingly between horny and corny."
In Black Panties, Kelly returns to the "leisurely, explicit come-ons that established his persona on … 12 Play," the New York Times' Jon Pareles writes. Although laden with "overdubbed" production layers, this new album highlights Kelly's vocal prowess, which "holds some humanity." But as the album progresses, Kelly's "promises of highly skilled sexual attentions," leaving traces of the "career plotter" behind the musician.
"Amid all the bluster and pornography," which have shaped the singer's divisive image in recent years, there's "an appealingly indignant streak to much of Black Panties," the L.A. Times' Mikael Wood opines. Despite its "sly self-awareness," however, the album is still prone to the "occasional lapse in Kelly's judgment." Black Panties lacks a certain semblance of consistency present in Kelly's earlier work, giving the impression that "the singer might've padded the album in his determination to get it out in time to capitalize on the renown he's established this year."
The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot gives Black Panties 2 out of 4 stars, calling the work "a musically detailed, sonically rich porn soundtrack, a formula that has helped the singer sell more than 50 million albums worldwide in two decades." At this point, "most people have their mind made up on Kelly's music," Kot continues, "and Black Panties will do little to change their view." Still, "there are signs of slippage" as the new generation of R&B and hip-hop artists usurp industry turf, raising questions about Kelly's future prospects, both as a musician and a cultural caricature.
"Black Panties won't humanize the man for anyone who prefers caricature," says Entertainment Weekly's Nick Catucci, but it earned a "B" rating nonetheless. Like many critics, Catucci describes Kelly's latest studio record as "a return to wafting sex jams," albeit "less joyous -- listless when he'd normally be questing for uplift." Rather than studio influence, Catucci cites the singer's lingering weariness as the reason Black Panties "falls short of the Kelly we love."