Should we distinguish between the life of an artist and the work that he or she creates? I was young, sometime early in high school, when I first discovered the works of Richard Wagner. I was absolutely, utterly enthralled — the German composer’s works were at the time some of the most overwhelmingly beautiful pieces of music that I had heard in my life. But I soon discovered that Wagner authored anti-semitic writings and participated in the sort of race-fueled Germanic nationalism that would so prominently factor into the impending rise of the Nazi Party. Necessarily, the question arose of whether or not these facts should alter my understanding of Wagner’s compositions, whether these extra-musical truths should inflect my admiration for the musical theoretical genius behind his works, whether they should affect my enjoyment of the singular, arresting beauty possessed by his music. It’s a difficult issue to navigate; in fact, I continue to vacillate between believing that the achievements of a creator such as Wagner should be evaluated on their own merits as autonomous, independent objects, and believing that the composer’s personal history and socio-political ideology absolutely must factor into how I approach his artworks.
Much like Wagner, another artist for whom these considerations arise is R. Kelly. For many listeners, the Chicago-bred R&B singer’s legal woes inevitably play into one’s ability to engage with his musical output, and Black Panties, his 12th album, seems particularly destined to raise such interrogation. Far more sexually explicit than its immediate predecessors — 2010’s exceptional Love Letter and its solid follow-up, Write Me Back — Black Panties is, if nothing else, relentlessly carnal. Given the sexual assault accusations, the listener’s response to the unabashed sensuality of this music will likely depend on his or her perspective on the issue explored above. And musically, the album is also a marked departure from Kelly’s recent output: while Love Letter and Write Me Back mined the sound of classic R&B and soul to rather fruitful ends, Black Panties instead chooses to explore the crisp, expansive aesthetic currently en vogue in contemporary R&B.
The album certainly occupies a unique position in R. Kelly’s career: after successfully meme-ifying himself through the famous (and apparently ongoing) Trapped in the Closet series, the singer attracted a new generation of listeners engrossed by his endearing strangeness. There’s definitely a layer of irony involved in this renewed fascination with the singer; I saw Kelly perform at two major music festivals this past summer, and while audience members certainly seemed to joyfully succumb to the catharsis offered by some of Kelly’s most well-known megahits (singing along to “I Believe I Can Fly” in a crowd of thousands was a near-religious experience), a palpable sort of ironic detachment coated the whole affair — throughout the set, people seemed to be laughing at Kelly and the sheer absurdity of his hypersexual presence rather than sincerely enjoying the music. With Black Panties, I might posit that Kelly is playing right into this phenomenon.
From its cover to its title to the tracklisting and the lyrical content therein, Black Panties is about little else except sex. The opening line of the album? “Tonight I wanna hear you screaming — OH!” The number of times that the word “pussy” appears in the song “Marry the Pussy”? 56. The rest of the album follows suit, and this is perfectly fine — R. Kelly has, after all, built a wildly successful career making sensual, sexual music. The issue with Black Panties is that, even though all the parts are in place — the production is largely passable, and Kelly’s vocal chops are as awe-inspiring as ever — it never really seems to come together in a terribly compelling manner. Only a few of the tracks truly distinguish themselves from the bunch. “Marry the Pussy” is hilariously — if slightly uncomfortably — enjoyable for certain obvious reasons, but the song’s gorgeous foundation of gently-picked acoustic guitar, synthesizer glissandi, and pointillistic percussion samples actually turns the track into something that I wouldn’t be ashamed to revisit. Same goes for “Genius,” my favorite track on the album, which boasts a particularly pretty and unshakeable vocal turn and depicts a sexual relationship that seems at least slightly less predatory than those explored on most of the other songs on Black Panties.
Sadly, however, the majority of the album falls flat, presenting cringe-inducing lyrics that simply can’t be saved by the initially pleasant but ultimately unremarkable beats. Lyrically, the most interesting moment is the final track, “Shut Up.” Here, Kelly seems to address the aforementioned legal issues that dogged him throughout the 2000s and ruined many fans’ faith in the singer (“A tsunami of rumors had come to wipe my career away”) before defiantly asserting the continued vitality of his career (“See my future ain’t my past/ It’s not the end of the hourglass”). Much like the ethos expressed in the works of Richard Wagner, the graphic, explicit nature of Black Panties will inevitably force the listener to recall Kelly’s personal history and to in turn consider whether this history should influence how one receives the music itself. And yet, there’s a certain key difference between the music of R. Wagner and R. Kelly: unlike Wagner’s finest works, even when one completely isolates and autonomizes Black Panties — removing it from the highly controversial circumstances surrounding the man who authored the album — very little truly changes. Despite its positives, the album falls far short of the impressive musical peaks of Kelly’s discography. Perhaps it’s the man himself, singing on the title track, who says it best: “You deserve better, baby.”