R. Kelly apparently believes he can do more than just fly: He believes he can rule. Never mind his successes as singer, producer, and songwriter, culminating in the use of 1996’s “I Believe I Can Fly” as a movie theme and not one but two commercials. Kelly’s ambitions have never been as nakedly up-front as they are on R., two discs of new material on which he all but crowns himself the new King of Pop.
Kelly doesn’t see any racial divisions between fans, a conceit both idealistic and grandiose. He’s equally proficient at schmaltz and PG-13 versions of the bedroom soul pioneered by Marvin Gaye. R. offers something for everyone: solemn hymns to fatherhood (“Reality”), studly boasts about the power of his tongue (“2nd Kelly”), forlorn love odes (the strong seven-song suite that opens the album), and duets with both Celine Dion and rapper Nas.
In his own mind, Kelly pays the price for daring to aspire to such lofty goals. In the skit “The Chase,” dogs and helicopters hunt Kelly down: “Do not let this disc be heard!” barks a cop, as if Kelly is such a creative maverick that he must be stopped! “What I Feel/Issues,” which moves from a sullen piano intro to a dense sound collage, finds Kelly feeling under siege (“You don’t like my songs/Well, it pays the bills/And you put me down, ’cause I keep it real”) to the accompaniment of sirens, gunshots, and applause. The message is clear: It’s not easy being in green.
Alas, the grooves that accompany these songs aren’t nearly as striking as Kelly’s often bizarre musings. In his goal to be all things to all music-purchasing people, he’s turned his music into go-down-easy oatmeal. Even when rappers Jay-Z or Crucial Conflict make cameos, the songs remain in one of two tempos — low or medium simmer — and Kelly rarely turns up the heat. The flickery beats and sensuous harmonies that are fairly enticing at record’s start keep on trucking, to numbing effect. By the time R. winds up — with “I Believe I Can Fly” and “I’m Your Angel,” a belt-by-numbers duet with Dion–Kelly has realized his crossover dreams. Maybe next time he’ll bump and grind his way toward a few more risks.