Can you separate art from the artist?

That’s a hard question to answer. At the end of the day, the answer has to be yes. After all, artistic people are fucked up. Hell, people in general are fucked up.

Or maybe I’m just trying to weakly justify my renewed appreciation for R. Kelly. After all, the dude is (allegedly) one sick motherfucker. Up until three or four years ago, I was totally cool with the idea of dismissing him, too. His albums sucked (y’all remember Double Up?) and he was more than happy to do interviews comparing himself with the likes of Osama bin Laden. Then, something happened…he dropped the R&B thug bit and started making good (if derivative) soul music again. I don’t know if it’s the relative drought that R&B has been in lately, but suddenly Kells is the man again. He has dropped three solid discs in a row, and his new album, Write Me Back, might be the best of the bunch…the man’s most solid album since the mid Nineties.

A review of Write Me Back by the L.A. Times called it R. Kelly’s “disco album,” and while I wouldn’t go that far, there’s definitely a retro feeling to most of the songs here. This is a good thing, as these songs actually have melodies, bridges, lyrics and all of the hallmarks of good old songwriting. While I do wish Kelly would stretch out a little more musically (almost all the songs he’s recorded over the course of his career have the exact same 4/4 beat) the man certainly knows how to write a catchy song, and the voice ain’t that bad, either. Plus, the lyrics are much more easy to take when he’s not singing explicitly about sex-which he isn’t-at least for most of this album.

There are lots of live instruments on Write Me Back-strings, horns, basses that pop. Some songs serve as kind of a contemporary update of the Gamble & Huff Philly Soul sound, but there are other twists like the Smokey-esque vibe of “Fool For You” and the blatant MJ-isms of “Feelin’ Single.” He turns the clock back to the ’50s and ’60s with songs like “Party Jumpin’” and “All Rounds On Me” and then reminds us that he can sound as contemporary as his new-school nemesis (some would say successor) Trey Songz with a song like “Believe In Me.” The man pretty much covers every R&B base, and there are no guest emcees (no guest vocalists at all, actually,) no contemporary production, just a guy making feel-good music. I would be even more effusive about this album if it wasn’t for the fact that the man making them has been personally repulsive.

The fact that I’m being as effusive as I am says a lot to the fact that Write Me Back is a surprisingly strong album. Actually, it might be the best contemporary R&B album made so far in 2012. There’s no way of telling whether Kelly’s learned from his mistakes, and I certainly wouldn’t invite the guy to a party, but musically speaking? The man is on his “A” game. Write Me Back is a must-have.

Grade: A-

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