If R. Kelly is a joke, he's laughing longer and louder than the rest of us. The R&B maestro's lover-man persona has become so amplified over a 20-year run that he's practically become a self-parody; his sexual appetite and musical prolificacy so tireless that he seems to defy the laws of science and common sense. The man born Robert Sylvester Kelly has beaten child-porn charges and risked his reputation by extending his hopelessly dopey Trapped in the Closet video anthology over a series of years. (More chapters are coming in 2014.) And yet despite these factors—or perhaps because of them—he resides in his own realm of bizarre genius. Any ordinary artist can be talented or ridiculous or controversial—combining those three qualities has made Kelly an object of endless fascination.
Kelly's hyperactive shamelessness continues on his new album, Black Panties, which is a return to frank sex music after two records of old-school, SFW soul tunes. On the album cover, Kelly sets the tone for the 13 tracks inside, portraying himself as a Phantom of the Opera-esque masked lothario playing a scantily clad beauty sitting on his lap like she's a cello. As with most everything Kelly does, the image is simultaneously funny, stupid, sincere, self-aware and absurd. It's not so much a question of whether he's joking but, rather, what degree of ludicrous he's pursuing at any one point. And while it's easy to mock his explicit come-ons and expertly manicured R&B and slow-jam soul, I appreciate Kelly because there's no nuance—especially in an era of R&B highlighted by more introspective and angst-y niche artists like the Weeknd. He wants a lot of pussy, and he's going to get it.