While it seems likely that R. Kelly’s lasting artistic legacy will be the endlessly proliferating erotic “hip-hopera” saga Trapped in the Closet, Black Panties finds him getting back to his core business with rather less artistic ambition.
Kelly has always been obsessed with two-backed beastliness, but here his sexual expression is at a brutally explicit level: like the desensitising effect of prolonged exposure to pornography, it’s as if he can’t reach the required level of titillation without becoming more brazen about it. It speaks volumes that the single-minded dedication to “Crazy Sex” results in nowhere near the album’s most blush-worthy track. That dubious honour is perhaps more justly bestowed on the paean to cunnilingus “Cookie”, wherein his partner’s privates are compared to an Oreo; or on any of several celebrations of lapdance encounters, such as “Spend That” and “Throw This Money on You”.
We are way beyond the point of politicised analysis of objectivisation: by comparison, Spinal Tap’s incomprehension about sexism seems quaintly innocent. Which is not to say there’s no humour about Black Panties. Such is Kelly’s incessant repetition of the P-word in “Marry the Pussy” that any erotic content in the track drains away, to be replaced by a comic momentum that grows with each line. It would also be wrong to suggest that the album lacks sensuous impact: the skeletal beats and slow-grind synth arrangements ooze sexuality, while Kelly remains the most skilled vocal inheritor of Marvin Gaye’s crown, his layered groans coalescing into hypnotic boudoir mantras.
But it’s noteworthy that none of the overtly sexual tracks packs the animated engagement of “Shut Up”, released as a single 2011, in which Kelly hits back at all the haters who predicted his demise when he underwent throat surgery. Perhaps understandably, it’s emotional in a way that the rest of the album isn’t.
Download: Shut Up; Legs Shakin’; Throw This Money on You