Is it possible to listen to Chocolate Factory, R. Kelly's new album, without prejudice? We doubt it. Rightly or wrongly, the hair-raising charges regarding the ''Bump N' Grind'' star's purported sexual activity with an underage girl -- not to mention a certain X-rated black-market video -- have served to make his trademark R&B-lothario persona seem more than a little creepy. You might think that under the circumstances Kelly would opt to soft-pedal the pillow talk, but he's as randy as ever. His new single, ''Ignition,'' is full of the most brazen automotive sexual metaphors imaginable: ''Girl, please let me stick my key in your ignition.... Have you ever driven a stick, babe?/You'll be screaming every time we shift them gears, babe.'' Yeah, and we'll bet he can drive all night, too. Be thankful he didn't have the brass to cover ''Brand New Key,'' Melanie's naughty 1971 nursery rhyme.
The most striking thing about ''Factory'' is its ''let's get down to freaky business as usual'' vibe. It's largely a collection of the sort of steamy, silky slow jams at which Kelly -- who wrote, produced, and arranged the whole shebang -- has always excelled. On ''Step in the Name of Love (Remix),'' he calls himself ''the pied piper of R&B,'' and if hot buttered soul floats your boat, he's the man to follow.
''Loveland,'' the title track of a six-song bonus CD included with ''Factory,'' is prime Kelly, seemingly designed expressly for the purpose of seduction. ''Oooh, it's unbelievable how your body feels next to mine,'' he coos. ''Get in my bed/Makin' sounds/Me on top of you/Rollin' around.'' On ''Imagine That,'' which starts out slow and builds to a dramatic climax, Kelly works himself into a characteristically lustful lather: ''Imagine the opportunity/You and me sharing sexual energy.'' Next to this guy, Barry White is a prude.
Lest you mistake him for an unredeemed erotomaniac, Kelly also has his romantic side. ''Forever,'' replete with mournful, dewy harmonies, finds him proposing marriage to that special someone, offering promises of a white picket fence and a house in the suburbs. ''Heart of a Woman'' is a paean to the glories of the fairer sex. Yet sometimes Kelly's take on romance is almost comically deluded. ''You Made Me Love You,'' a fine mix of gospel and blues that recalls Robert Cray, straight-facedly posits the notion that women and their wily ways can force a man to do wild and crazy things. (Note to Kelly: Although we're laymen, this doesn't strike us as a particularly sturdy legal defense.)
Kelly no doubt learned a lot of what he knows about constructing seriously sensual R&B from the Isley Brothers, and in recent years he has repaid the debt, producing songs like their career-rejuvenating 2001 hit, ''Contagious.'' The velvet-voiced Ronald Isley turns up on ''Showdown,'' portraying, as he did on ''Contagious,'' the character of the star-crossed love gangster Mr. Biggs. Rapper Ja Rule also guests on ''Been Around the World,'' while Fat Joe beefs up ''Who's That.'' Notably MIA is Jay-Z, who seems to have distanced himself from Kelly -- not coincidentally around the time all that disturbing talk about alleged child pornography was surfacing -- since their 2002 collaboration, ''The Best of Both Worlds.''
Kelly never explicitly addresses the brouhaha surrounding those allegations, but when he solemnly intones, ''It's all because I'm famous, you know what I'm sayin'/I mean, if I wasn't famous, then all this wouldn't be happening'' on ''Heaven I Need a Hug,'' you pretty much know what ''this'' signifies. A few moments later, he's invoking religion: ''I'm a grown man with kids now/Stakes are higher/Gotta go to church now to avoid the fire.'' But it's on the song's chorus that he ascends to a new level of hubris, while posing what ranks as one of the all-time great existential questions: ''Heaven I need a hug/Is there anybody out there willing to embrace a thug?'' Of course, as the success of hardcore rappers from Tupac to 50 Cent has proven, plenty of people are willing to show thugs some love. But an alleged pedophile and unrepentant super-freak asking for a communal embrace? Excuse us, but we don't believe that will fly.