R. Kelly returns, barely ‘Reloaded’

by Mark Guarino

As R. Kelly is proving, 21 counts of child pornography do not necessarily sink a career.

Soon after the South Side native was charged, he responded through his music. On “The Chocolate Factory” (Jive), his first album since charges were leveled in June 2002 (seven charges have since been dropped), the singer showed his soft side, through songs that were more or less tame valentines to being in love. His next output, “Happy People/U Saved Me” (Jive), was a double-CD of uplifting spirituals and other lighthearted fare designed for stepping traditionalists to enjoy at the neighborhood lounge. As much as haters wanted these albums to show defects in his armor, they were two of the most enjoyable albums of his career.

But as the window of time grows between when he was charged and when he’ll go to trial (which remains in limbo — yet another evidentiary hearing is set for July 20), Kelly is becoming more comfortable in embracing the sexual R&B of his early career. “TP.3: Reloaded” (Jive), his new album in stores this week, is the furthest Kelly has gone in exploiting his image as a sexual lothario. While lined with brazenly sexual lyrics from top to bottom, the album is dry of new musical ideas. But pushing the creative juices might not be the point. This album should be seen as a savvy marketing maneuver for Kelly who, after three years of winning back his audience through softening his image and watching the scandal drop further and further away from the front page, is newly confident to once again kick out the sultry club jams and slow grinding ballads that leave little to the imagination.

Anyone who has followed his albums from the beginning will recognize the formula fully in gear for two-thirds of this album — finger snapping beats, bubbling water droplet effects, rolling synthesizers. Kelly, who is the biggest-selling R&B artist of the last decade, is seriously coasting with songs that contain little or no emotional depth. Instead, Kelly offers instructions on countertop lovemaking (“Sex in the Kitchen”), exchanging clothes (“Put My T-Shirt On”), a comparison between lovemaking and smoking herb (“Sex Weed”) and a duet with singer Nivea that goes far beyond pillow talk (“Touchin’”).

Barry White, Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross all specialized in bedroom reportage, but none have been so blatantly obvious than Kelly. Here, his note-by-note detail is as sensual as reading the phone book in a coma ward.

Cameos from Elephant Man (“Reggae Bump Bump”) and Chicagoans Twista and Do Or Die (“Hit It Til the Mornin’”) liven things up but it’s telling when Kelly gets upstaged by all of them. The requisite shout-out to Chicago is even assigned to Snoop Dogg (“Happy Summertime”) who offers a travelogue to enjoying a night out on the town: “slide by Millennium Park/one more spot to hit before it gets dark/Lake Shore Drive/slip before we slide/summertime on the West Side.”

The novelty of “TP.3 Reloaded” are the five “Trapped in the Closet” tracks, numbered as chapters and together clocking in a little over 16 minutes. They became the serial singles of this album, released over a month ago, to slowly build anticipation. With Kelly playing all the parts, the five songs do not follow any conventional song structure. Instead, they feature Kelly delivering the narration involving twisted love triangles, guns, a police chase and convoluted plot twists any daytime soap writer might consider hackwork. Individually, they build to a crescendo near the end, leaving the cliffhanger to be satisfied by the following track.

As skilled as Kelly is in building tension and separating characters through his carefully crafted vocal inflections, this is still part melodrama, all gimmick. Even if his pending trial doesn’t cause him bankruptcy (don’t count on it), “TP.3 Reloaded” is a sign that at least artistically, he might already be there.

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