The Buffet (released December 11, 2015)
Robert Kelly’s career is really a tale of two crooners.
There’s the 20th century R. Kelly, the man who delivered sweaty bedroom ballads and uplifting gospel anthems with shocking ease. R&B, hip-hop, pop and even country benefited from his platinum touch.
Then there’s 21st century R. Kelly, whose reign as undisputed King of R&B has been clouded by the specter of statutory rape allegations — causing Kellz to dial back on his trademark lyrical sexcapades for almost a decade.
No matter how music fans try to divide the issue — stalwarts who blindly cling to his pre-scandal greatness and critics who want his contributions erased from existence — Kelly is the sum of both those parts. Neither can be ignored.
Kelly’s 13th album, The Buffet, aims to be a return to form after spending nearly 10 years in damage control.
The album title is a little more subtle than you’d expect. Thankfully there are no heavy-handed tracks called “Golden Corral” or “Pie Eating Contest” here (though he wastes no time with the expected sex-as-food metaphors on “Poetic Sex”). Instead, this “Buffet” celebrates Kelly’s renowned musical diversity, serving up equal parts lust and love.
Think of it this way: 2012’s underrated Write Me Back was a throwback record, saluting soul’s heartfelt roots — the type of record even grandma n’ them would enjoy; 2013’s woeful Black Panties was basically a musical orgy, making BET Uncut look like Kidz Bop. The Buffet attempts to straddle those two worlds, but the “something for everyone” approach becomes more of a distraction than a treat.
Arruh’s greatest strength has been his ability to adapt to the current musical climate, so it’s no surprise that the first half of the album is loaded with the hip-hop infused R&B that artists like Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih are using to dominate radio playlists. In fact, both artists show up on “Anything Goes” and “Switch Up,” respectively. But at nearly 50 years old, Kellz sounds ridiculous telling some poor woman to “sit it on my face like ba-da-bum-bum-bum” on “Marching Band.”
There’s a difference between being the hip, cool uncle and the creepy old guy at the club smelling like Axe body spray. Kellz stomps all over that line.
“Let’s Make Some Noise,” an oversexed duet with Jhene Aiko, also drifts into absurdity. Don’t get me wrong, Kelly’s never been the master of subtlety — “Feelin’ On Yo Booty” and “You Remind Me Of Something” spring to mind. But while those tracks brimmed with humor and personality, Kelly’s current efforts are just lifeless.
Kelly’s fortunes suddenly turn around on the second half of the album, when the kids are sent to their bedrooms and the grown folks enter the building. “All My Fault” and “Wake Up Everybody” are cut from the same steppers’ cloth as “Step In The Name of Love” and “Happy People.”
“All My Fault” allows Kelly to bare his soul (“There is nowhere for me to put the blame/I did what I did and I’m so ashamed”) while “Wake Up Everybody” drips with sexuality without the eye-rolling double-entendres. The woozy “Sextime” likewise leaves nothing to the imagination, minus the immaturity. All of those tracks would have made better singles than the tepid “Backyard Party,” which is sonically sound but dreadfully dull. It’s like watching your grandparents play dominoes for three hours.
The album’s most heartfelt track, “Wanna Be There” is as an open apology to his estranged daughter, who duets here under the name Ariirayé. Her response is heartbreakingly frank: “All I ever wanted to do was please you, and I don’t know what happened to us but I need you.” It’s a touching track but feels really out of place among the goofy sex songs and family reunion cuts.
Kelly planned for The Buffet to serve as a sonic sampling of all his sounds. Individually, there are some choice morsels here. But when packaged together, the finished product winds up jarring and disjointed.
Look, some people like chitlins. Some people like ice cream. No one on God’s green Earth wants their chitlin juice seeping into their melting ice cream. Kelly’s schizophrenic meal plan is just hard to swallow.
Best tracks: “Wake Up Everybody,” “All My Fault,” “Sextime”
3 stars out of 5