Nick Catucci
February 19, 2014 AT 05:00 AM EST

Black Panties

Current Status
In Season
music label

We gave it a B

He’s a king in the R&B world. In the indie bubble, though, R. Kelly is often treated like a jester — even fans of his ”Trapped in the Closet” song cycle still question his self-awareness, and when his grocery list (dino-shaped chicken nuggets, Go-gurts, etc.) leaked online in September, condescending, faintly racist jokes swarmed social media. This year, though, he turned that fascination to his advantage, performing his ’94 smash ”Bump N’ Grind” with Phoenix at Coachella, headlining Bonnaroo and the Pitchfork Music Festival, and galvanizing the art-enervated Lady Gaga on SNL and the AMAs, bringing freaky fun to their hit ”DO What U Want.”

Black Panties won’t humanize the man for anyone who prefers caricature. But his 12th album, a return to wafting sex jams after two soulful dance discs, also falls short of the Kelly we love: the tireless entertainer-as-lover and suavely esoteric devotee of churchy theatrics, inspirational-poster slogans, Chicago stepping music, and extreme wordplay.

At 46, Kells still goes for broke. The virtues of prayer, marriage proposals, and pleasure-giving seamlessly combine when he sighs ”I wanna go down on my knees” in ”Marry the P—y,” while ”Shut Up” spreads gospel to haters. Yet he’s less joyous — listless when he’d normally be questing for uplift. Little chemistry bubbles up with guests like Kelly Rowland and Ludacris. Not even 2 Chainz can brighten the somber (if self-assured) ”My Story.” Of course, it is R. Kelly’s story. He just sounds wearier explaining it these days. B

Best Tracks
”Genius” — A sly, glossy come-on
”Throw This Money On You” — A fervent strip-club anthem

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