Upon listening to R. Kelly's latest opus Write Me Back, a few names will immediately jump out at you: Teddy Pendergrass, Barry White, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye even Ray Charles. Unfortunately, the name that will rarely, if ever, pop into your mind during this set is R. Kelly. That's not to say that Write Me Back isn't a great set of songs, mind you. It definitely sounds and feels good when you listen to it. But, in hewing too close to the material that inspired him, R. Kelly unintentionally creates a "been there, done that" ambiguity around the songs. If only he would've allowed the artists of yesteryear to simply inspire instead of aping their sounds almost note for note (and tone for tone), more of his style and (apologies) swagger would've been infused into the music.
As mentioned before, though, there are some great moments to be had on the album. The one-two-three punch of "Love Is," the "Lovely Day" sampling "Feelin' Single" and "Lady Sunday" will be sure to have you grooving on a lazy weekend afternoon. "When a Man Lies," however, is the disc's first speed bump. Musically, it's got a nice vibe to it. Lyrically, though, it rehashes material that R.'s done before on songs like "When a Woman's Fed Up" and is, quite frankly, a bit trite and boring. Thankfully, we get a glimpse of the R. Kelly we've come to know on standout "Clipped Wings." The touching, sentimental song finds Kelly lamenting on love lost and regret. It's a song that could easily rank among some of his best ballads.
"Believe That It's So" is so much like a Stevie Wonder tune that you'd almost expect a harmonica solo to ring out at any moment. It's interesting enough, but not enough to really be memorable. At least, that is, until the song changes midway through to a stepper's groove. "I've had a little too much to drink," he sings as his words paint a portrait of the party of the year. The second half of the song is good enough to stand on its own, so it's a bit of a headscratcher as to why he didn't make it its own entity on the album. "Fool for You" is another grab for a Motown sound (more specifically, the era of Smokey Robinson's smooth songwriting style). It works well enough, but is too much of carbon copy of Smokey's blueprint.
"All Rounds on Me" and "Believe in Me" just don't work. The former is throwback to a late-'50's sound that doesn't jibe with Kelly's laid back flow. The latter is a more modern, yet lyrically clunky song that he should've shopped out to the Chris Browns of the world. "Green Light" is a rousing success, though. Mining from the Isleys' well, it's a slinky, sexy bedroom jam. Given his history with Ron Isley, it's not surprising that he pulls this one off so well (you'll be surprised to know that Ron isn't involved with this track at all, in fact). "Party's Jumpin'," an attempt at hitting the same notes as soul legends like Sam Cooke, doesn't work as well. This is mainly because R. tries to marry modern lyrics ("Let's take some shots," "Let's go hard," etc.) to a classic sound. Lead single "Share My Love" fares better, with its combo of Teddy P's machismo and Barry White's bravado transporting listeners to the late-'70s/early-'80s when jams like this were king.
If you happen to purchase the deluxe edition of Write Me Back, you'll get four additional tracks: "Beautiful in This Mirror," "You Are My World," "Fallin' from the Sky" and "Distant Lover" rip-off "One Step Closer." Honestly, the only song worth checking out of the trio is "You Are My World." On it, Kells is obviously channeling MJ, down to his vocal tics and inflections. It's a damn good take on Michael, to tell the truth, and makes you wonder just what the King of Pop would've done with this if he were still with us.
Write Me Back is by no means a bad album. Still, if he were going to mimic styles of iconic artists so closely, it would've probably been more effective to just do an album of covers. As it is, Write Me Back is too burdened with the mark of his heroes to really be called a fully R. Kelly affair.