Post-statutory rape scandal, post-Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly has eased into a niche as hip-hop’s de facto crazy uncle, his sexual monomania and likely perversions mellowed down to an eccentric tic. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Untitled once again indulges all his signature obsessions, including his full-bore devotion to sex as a holy subject, which, if not exactly fascinating, has managed to come off as consistently amusing. Here the gimmick wears conspicuously thin—lazily conceived, never pushed far enough to be interesting, and built off milquetoast beats and some bad, bad poetry.
What’s made Kelly ickily charming is a penchant for presenting his member as other rappers do their entire selves: a vessel of unknowable power whose reputation needs constant tending. He offers himself as a kind of superman, as tireless in talking about sex as he claims to be in performing it. Fourteen of 15 songs here directly broach the topic—not in passing, but as direct, unavoidable focus, often ringed with purple pronouncements of adulation and love. It’s a style that, in some ways, represents the terminus of drippy R&B sermonizing, where the woman is the sacred object, a treasure to be bedded down and treated right. He takes this fawning, ultimately self-serving adoration to a creepier place, still indulging in its signature language but tweaked to a far raunchier level.
The focus on relative monogamy is not strange for Kelly, but at this pitch, so devoid of novelty or wit, it becomes grating. The result is a long run of toothlessly drooly sentimental whimpering, the kind of “Girl, I’ll treat your body like a temple” blather that makes for the most cringe-worthy moments of otherwise good R&B songs. Unfortunately, most of these are not good R&B songs. They’re lurid wet dreams whose creepy humor is overrun by the sheer repetition of their sentiments. One or two drab paeans are bearable, but piled high with them the album’s momentum lags; despite his best efforts, Kelly slowly runs out of ways to metaphorically describe oral sex, finally settling for the blandly disgusting “Ima kiss you on your privates, girl.”
Thankfully, the propulsive “Supaman High” breaks this early slump; I’ve never been as grateful to hear a song about drugs and guns. This strong streak is continued with “Be My #2,” which finds the singer actually hatching something clever: an honestly delivered plea to a girl to be his backup mistress. But it’s not long before he stumbles back into dreary bedroom antics. “Text Me” is the kind of faux-timely gimmick—all catch-phrases and beep-beep sound effects—employed by lesser artists grasping at significance.
In Kelly’s hyper-sexualized world, everyone is a woman ripe for the plucking, even the DJ at the club (“I Love the DJ”) who’s not only good at her job but sexy to boot. Other men don’t even figure in as competition; they show up only to offer hood credence or slow-jam backing vocals (OJ da Juiceman on “Supaman High,” Robin Thicke and Tyrese on “Pregnant”). This makes for a sweltering environment, and the only thing that prevents Untitled from dissolving in its own moisture is Kelly’s consummately unhinged personality. The result is bizarre digressions like “Echo,” whose hook compares a woman’s moaning to Alpine yodeling. “Pregnant,” which plays like a Dave Chappelle sketch of an R. Kelly song, is delivered with a totally straight face, opening with “Girl, Ima get you pregnant,” backed by a cooing “Knock you up” rejoinder courtesy of Thicke.
This thrusting weirdness can only take him so far. “Bangin’ the Headboard” is the latest in a line of standard issue sex-location songs, which most notably took him to the kitchen, now ambling back into the bedroom, where realistically there’s not much left to describe. As he states on “Like I Do,” there’s two things Kelly is good at: music and “working your body out, girl.” We’d all be better off if he focused a little more on the former.