Imagine R. Kelly’s career as an intense game of Freudian ping-pong, volleying back and forth between sanctified devotion and ribald sexuality. The internal issues that have driven him to vacillate between these two poles have famously manifested in a series of personal scandals, but even these events have failed to fully ally him to one side, the push and pull between the two becoming more and more pronounced. Taking a break from vulgarity after 2009’s Untitled, he released two albums of safe, conventional soul, exhibiting his enthusiasm for traditional values of monogamy and religion. That good behavior couldn’t go on forever, and the elastic bounce-back of Black Panties finds him descending into earthly pleasures more intensely than ever, immersed in a sticky, sordid world of pure sexuality.
The theatrics start without delay, on two songs dedicated to accounts of oral sex that, depending on your tolerance for this sort of torrid, florid erotica, will register as either disarmingly frank or gag-inducing. For me, it was around the point on “Cookie Monster” where he describes feasting on a woman after cracking her open like a lobster that things veered into the latter territory. But there’s a lot to admire on Black Panties, specifically how Kelly has edged the usually safe realm of pillow talk into someplace odd and unsettling. The singer has always flirted with overt self-parody (trying to figure out whether he’s entirely serious or in on the joke could make your head explode), but it’s best take him at face value, since to write him off as a simple jester ignores the sweltering depths his boudoir narratives are capable of reaching. Opener “Legs Shakin’” may be the purest example of this, a study of the female anatomy that breaks down into a Burroughsian word soup, making the sexual act seem as complex and disturbing as anything in Naked Lunch.
Even Kelly’s sporadic retreats into good behavior have made use of the same obsessiveness that fuels his more lewd material, playing off the tension between the two sides. While something keeps pulling him back toward attempts at clean living, the Mr. Hyde side of his personality grows more confident with each new appearance, exhibiting a mania that borders on desperation, with many of the scenarios here doubling as addiction allegories. He imagines the reuniting of two old lovers as a relapse on “All the Way” and spends “Crazy Sex” imagining a series of superlative sexual encounters, frantically trying to land on the perfect high.
It’s strange to revisit his 1993 debut, 12 Play, already a pretty perverse collection of raunchy slow jams, and hear how much more baroque and weird Kelly’s become. Compare that album’s “I Like the Crotch on You,” essentially a standard-issue pick-up ballad fixated on one particular body part, with this album’s “Marry the Pussy,” which turns that same general area into a separate, deified being, while possibly setting a new record for utterances of the p-word on a single track. Not every song here is about sex, as Kelly briefly delves into customary concerns of reputation, wealth, and appreciation for his fans, but the dirty material makes for the only instances where his voice sounds unique, possessed with a demented passion for filthy wordplay. The onslaught of bawdy imagery eventually grows tedious, but there’s something compelling about witnessing one man’s psyche laid so completely bare, a crazed prophet whipped into a frenzy by the ecstasy of his own sin.