It's no secret that R Kelly is one of music's least respected men. A shame, considering that during his prime he produced some of the finest R&B/pop crossover hits of the '90s – songs that are, 20 years on, still remarkably popular. It is, however, difficult to write about the artist's new album without allowing personal preconceptions of the man himself to take over and produce something that is, in fact – despite his reputation – a little unfair, and resolutely unprofessional in terms of criticism. Yet upon listening, it soon becomes clear that there's absolutely no need to use R Kelly's trials and tribulations against him in order to describe the album – based on the lyrical content alone that does a better job of showcasing his lecherousness than any one writer could ever achieve.
Four seconds into the album, the general theme has been set by spoken word introductory track 'The Poem'. It's the start of a journey through 48 minutes of undiluted sleaze. It is to commercial music what Gaspar Noé's Love is to mainstream cinema, there's even a five-second slurping sound that's enough to make any listener forget that R Kelly gave us some of the finest existing examples of pop-laced smooth R&B, once upon a time. 'Anything Goes' is less discerning, accompanied by Ty Dolla $ign – one of the album's many guest appearances – but although Kelly's voice is still as smooth as ever, his output seems weak, almost as though he's lost his passion for music.
Lead single 'Back Yard Party' is far better, although it's the instrumental composition that's by far the most impressive, and although Kelly's vocals are particularly persuasive through the chorus, the verses seem carelessly underworked. A glimmer of promise is also delivered with instant-grat track from iTunes pre-orders 'Marching Band'. The artist's off-kilter rapped verses aren't particularly outstanding, although the chorus is one of the album's strongest, aided by some euphoric brass input to add to the single's otherwise minimalist production. 'Wanna Be There', meanwhile, features R Kelly's daughter Joann Kelly's input – going by the stage name Ariirayé – with her resplendently smooth vocals that save this touching father/daughter collaboration.
The strongest input from Kelly, however, has to be on back-to-back cuts 'All My Fault' and 'Wake Up Everybody'. Both are soulful and showcase the buttery smooth vocals that made the artist so popular in the first place. The rest of the album, though, is much less exciting. It's a real shame that out of 18 songs whittled down from a reported 462, the album has just three consistently good songs. Instead of the veritable feast of variety that the album's name would suggest – 'The Buffet' seems far more of an underwhelming table d'hôte offering.
Words: Jonathan Hatchman
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