The comparatively positive reaction R. Kelly earned with 2010’s Love Letter and now its samey follow-up, Write Me Back, goes to show either just how much dance-music fans (no doubt weary of full-metal-couture beats) are ready to embrace Philadelphia International pastiches, or that people genuinely believe R&B’s most comically illiterate songwriter is fully reformed after stepping astride the precipice of dirty-minded psychosis. And they’ll embrace even this-porridge-is-just-right uptempo mush if it comes with even just the whiff of a promise he’ll never put them through another multipart “song cycle” fixating on the gastrointestinal foibles of a gunshy midget or the transmission of HIV between pastors and pimps. It’s a recipe for an audience filled with “Happy People,” the 2004 Kelly track almost everything even halfway good on either Love Letter or Write Me Back most strongly resembles. (The one good uptempo track that strays ever so slightly from the template is the good but derivative “Feelin’ Single,” which lifts its chord progression straight from Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day.”)
For most of his career, Kelly has been playing the crowd from every angle (inspirational prophet of the Church of Space Jams, corny uncle with a lot of old records to spin, vengeful sexual predator with an eye on how much money is being swiped from his wallet for facials and pedicures), but here he simply insists, “I promise you’ll never hurt again/I just want to share my love.” Meanwhile, his songs are all written in the key of grown folks, with all the unadventurous drum programming and sparkling clean keyboard lines. It’s sometimes hard to tell when Kelly’s really excited by his own material, but I think one of the giveaways is how hectically fast his vibrato oscillates, and in Write Me Back, it reaches a feverish hum. So even if the songs sound like the height of artifice (from his apologia to a formerly caged bird in “Clipped Wings” to his ersatz spiritual-sexual rebirth in “Feelin’ Single”), there’s little doubt he believes in his own hollow offerings. So by all means, enjoy the homecoming promenade while the stepping’s good, but don’t be shocked if this all turns out to be nothing more than a Pied Piper act.