He’s growing old like the rest of us, sure, and maybe prone to weepy fits of nostalgia for a bygone era where music was earnest and not controlled by social media, shock value, and fucking stupid neon hats, but there’s still something noble about R. Kelly’s quest to dig up the classics of R&B and process them through his personal branding machine. This project started in earnest in 2009, when he began singing Sam Cooke songs during his sets. Then came the infamous Christmas party where he performed the entirety of Cooke’s 1964 show at the Copacabana, which, in turn, inspired Love Letter, Kelly’s throwback album that featured the single “When a Woman Loves.”
About a year ago, I went with a few friends to an R. Kelly concert here in Los Angeles. After blowing away the choruses to about 50 of his hits, Kells closed the show with “When a Woman Loves.” For those who have never been, an R. Kelly concert is like prom for black people in their mid-to-late 30. As Kells slowly made his way through “Wheeeeeeeeen ... Wheee-yeeeeeen-eeeeh-eehn,” the audience, who up until that point had been dancing in the aisles, fell into a hush. A black-and-white video reel was projected on the screen behind the stage and everything was supposed to be back in 1964 again. The trick worked, somehow, and it felt like everyone in the audience was swaying back and forth at their mother’s school dance. This sort of nostalgia is ultimately pornographic because it excerpts the good feelings and the sensation from any sort of context. But what great porn it is! Nostalgia at all blind costs can be a problem in literature and film, but it always feels more appropriate and lived-in when it comes through music. Kells understands this because, well, he’s a musical genius. No other explanation really works or is necessary.
His latest song, “Feeling Single,” continues Kells’s dig back through the history of soul and R&B. This time, he seems to have come up with Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day.” Take a listen.