Kelly's 'R.' grooves along R&B continuum Review: Kitchen-sink CD is everything you'd expect, and then some.

November 10, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

R&B stars these days are depressingly one-dimensional.

Maybe it's the fault of music video. It sometimes seems as if there's a casting office somewhere that assigns each singer an image and expects him or her to stick with it. So Keith Sweat constantly comes on as a stylish tough guy with libidinous ballads, Aaliyah is forever singing slow-and-sultry love songs while showing off her abdomen and Gerald Levert invariably has a nice suit and a broken heart.

But R. Kelly? Here's a man with an image problem.

Specifically, figuring out which image is really him. Back in '93, when "12 Play" was on the charts, he was a total dog, looking for nothing but new ways of slaking his carnal desires.

Two years later, "R. Kelly" backed away from that libertine routine and presented a more pious view of the singer. In '96, "I Believe I Can Fly" (from the "Space Jam" soundtrack) revealed him to be a closet power balladeer.

So which version of Kelly do we get on "R." (Jive 1241 41625, arriving in stores today)?

Pretty much all of 'em.

On some tracks, he's a money-hungry playa, dropping dope beats behind Keith Murray, Jay-Z and Foxy Brown in hope of clocking mad dollars. On other songs, he's a smooth, sentimental songwriter, spinning out big, catchy choruses and harmonizing with Celine Dion. Along the way, he plays the broken-hearted lover, the down-low dog, a big-time celebrity and a latter-day soul man, to name just a few.

But with 29 tracks spread across two CDs, "R." gives Kelly more than enough room to play. And play he does, singing, rapping, playing most of the instruments and writing all the songs. He does so much on this sprawling double-album it takes a while before his achievement sinks in.

Some tracks, of course, are obvious winners. "Home Alone" opens the album in full party mode, with a thumping bass and percolating guitars feeding Kelly's sinuous croon and fueling Keith Murray's flow. Nor is that the only tune that has hip-hop flavor. "We Ride" balances a dreamy, Isley Brothers-style groove with rhymes by Cam'Ron, Jay-Z and Noreaga, while "Dollar Bill" has Foxy Brown throwing-down over Kelly's jeep beats.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there's "I'm Your Angel," a ballad so sweet and lush it's almost hard to believe it's really Kelly harmonizing with the utterly-at-home Dion. And, in the event his fans somehow missed "Space Jam," we get an album-closing reprise of "I Believe I Can Fly."

But the album's real strength lies between those two poles. Because where Kelly shines brightest is in his complete mastery of soul music. From the dark, bluesy "Suicide" to the sweet heartache of "Looking For Love" to the testifying intensity of "When a Woman's Fed Up," "R." covers so much ground -- so expertly -- it could serve as a mini-history of R&B.

R. Kelly

"R." (Jive 1241 41625)

Sun score: ***

Sundial: To hear excerpts from R. Kelly's new release, "R.," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter 6190. For other local numbers, see the directory on Page 2B.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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