“You used to laugh when I touched you like that,” R. Kelly says at the start of “Not Feelin’ the Love.” Me? I’ve blessedly never been touched by Kelly personally, but I have laughed at some of the things he’s said. At, not with. So I can express solidarity with the object of his affections that, with Love Letter, things just aren’t as they used to be. They’re sloppy, robotic, and boring—as boring as singing about having sex in a taxi decades after Angie Dickenson had her panties removed in a yellow checkered cab can be.
Dare I say I miss the days when he was comparing his lover’s bush to a damp, swampy rainforest? Kelly’s default mode throughout Love Letter is needy like a Salvation Army bell-ringer. Consequently, he’s taking no chances on potentially offending his intended target, so he keeps his hot tub safely tepid and his rhymes aggressively passive. On the title track, he muses, “Near or far, I will find a way to send my love/Only pray that it don’t come back return to sender.” In case you missed it, he repeats the sentiment over the Christmas “remix” (i.e. replay of the backing track with an overlay of jingle bells and non-rhymed couplets about “Marshmallows, hot chocolate/Fireplace, you and me cuddling”).
Musically, the album is a match, with Kelly supporting his generic sentiments with vanilla-smooth, grown-folks grooves that hearken not just to stepping in the name of love, but also some of the faux-Motown simulations from that most mechanical of recent musicals, Dreamgirls. “When a Woman Loves” sees Kelly trying to approximate just how big he knows women’s love to be with unspeakably chintzy brass overtures and Michael Bolton-esque vocal gestures. “Love Is” shuffles along with all the panache of a Target holiday commercial. In it, K. Michelle reasons, “I may as well grab a pen and sign a waiver/To be yours for the rest of my life.” Yet again, the overriding metaphors for love in Kelly’s opus uniformly fall under the umbrella of not philosophy, but plastic. On “Number One Hit,” he croons about the love between him and his victim blowing up just like “Thriller” did for Michael Jackson, “Smooth Operator” did for Sade, Avatar and Coming to America did for James Cameron and Eddie Murphy, respectively.
If it seems presumptuous for him to appear on the cover in Ray Charles mode, bear in mind that, in “Lost in Your Love,” he wishes he could be blind, because “I wanna have to find my way, and I don’t want to have a clue.” Ironic, because not only would he not have to be blind to not have a clue, but his tuneless lovemaking should make just about any prospective sex partner wish they were deaf.