These are faith-testing times for rhythm-and-blues fans. Lately, three of the genre’s biggest stars — Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and R. Kelly — seem more like candidates for “America’s Most Wanted.” Jackson, once investigated for child molestation, still shares his bed with children, according to a recent documentary. Houston, once charged with drug possession, still acts erratically, canceling appearances and cursing out interviewers. And Kelly, whose new album “Chocolate Factory” hits stores today, is out on bond awaiting trial on child pornography charges in Illinois and Florida.
And you thought violence-prone rappers like 50 Cent had troubles.
But where Jackson and Houston are experiencing steep declines in sales and creativity, Kelly is thriving. “Ignition (Remix),” the catchy first single from “Factory,” is a Top 5 R&B hit. And the rest of the album proves that Kelly’s talent for crafting erotic moods and melodies is still sharp.
As with his earlier efforts, “Factory” offers a provocative peek into the mind of one of pop music’s most troubled eccentrics of all time. His behavior runs from the odd (disavowing underwear and sleeping in closets) to the pitiable (tearfully mourning his late mother in concert every night during one of his tours) to the deeply disturbing and even possibly criminal (marrying the late singer Aaliyah when she was 15; the child pornography charges).
He’s a conflicted soul, and his music reflects these tensions, vacillating in theme from spiritually uplifting ballads (“I Believe I Can Fly”) to gritty sex romps (“Feelin’ on Your Booty”). This makes every Kelly album as rich a pop culture psychological case study as, say, the hit movie “The Hours” or any episode of television’s “The Sopranos.”
As a whole, “Factory” — which has brilliant moments — feels like a transitional work. The singer, songwriter and producer offers several cuts that fit perfectly within his sexy slow-jam canon. “Imagine That,” one of the best things Kelly has ever done, is a slinky fantasy that climaxes in blasts of Prince-like guitar. And “Showdown” is another in his series of entertainingly campy duets with Ronald Isley, lead singer of the Isley Brothers. (Freud would have had an Oedipal field day with how Kelly, who never knew his father, consistently presents Isley as a father figure with whom he competes for a woman’s affection.)
But other numbers suggest that Kelly is trying to broaden his musical range. “Step in the Name of Love” is a light, romantic breeze. And the chugging “You Knock Me Out” is a fine update of the Marvin Gaye party jam “Got to Give It Up.”
Lyrically, Kelly doesn’t address his legal problems directly. But he hints at them on the sweeping, Stevie Wonder-like “Been Around the World,” a cut with rapper Ja Rule that’s about feeling alternately loved and persecuted.
More subtly, his woes seem to have altered the tone of his music. The sex songs aren’t as blush-inducing as usual. And at least six songs are about fidelity. “No more playing house,” he sings on the marriage-proposal ballad “Forever.” “I want to make it real.”
It’s as if he’s aware of how creepy it is that an artist known for conveying the sometimes all-consuming nature of desire is charged with child pornography, a crime that’s rooted in losing control. Listening to the album, it seems as if Kelly is not only trying to convince listeners that he’s a changed — or changing — man, but also that he’s attempting to make the case to himself. As the brains behind “Chocolate Factory,” Kelly is both the creator of his newest fantasy and its ultimate consumer.