On Nov. 28, R. Kelly performed on the 2010 Soul Train Awards, and, as is his wont, he killed. Dressed like a time-lost Vegas showman in cape, single black glove and oversize black bow tie, he opened the show with an exuberant medley of past hits, including "When a Woman's Fed Up" and "Happy People." Then, removing the regalia, he put on a pair of David Ruffin-style frames and segued into his new single, "When a Woman Loves."
The song is a slice of throwback soul cheese that's as shamelessly operatic as it is startlingly affecting. His voice, teetering between wheezing tenor and roaring baritone, quavered and soared. It was just the kind of command performance that Kelly, the most fascinating and hard-to-reconcile R&B artist of his generation, pulls off all the time. Then a strange thing happened: A doo-wop re-imagining of the song began, and in the span of 60 seconds, the 43-year-old Kelly wondrously channeled Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles and Frankie Lymon.
"Love Letter," Kelly's 10th solo studio album, is meant as an homage to '60s and '70s soul geniuses - Marvin, Sam, Donny, Stevie. But based on the performance - the doo-wop remix is not included here - he might have tried for a decade previous. Odes to the pained iconoclasts of R&B are de rigueur these days, and "Love Letter" locks into a familiar but sometimes drab facsimile of the sound.
"Can I bring the love songs back to the radio?" Kelly sings on "Lost in Your Love," a curious request for the notoriously lascivious singer. He's historically pushed R&B forward, stretching the limits of language and grandeur. But Kelly, who wrote and produced everything here, is operating in a style that is fatally loyal to his forbears.