Sometimes it’s perfectly kosher to judge an album by its cover. That’s true of Love Letter, R. Kelly’s 10th studio disc. The cover—which features a sunglass-sporting, bow-tied Kelly looking ecstatically upward in imitation of 1960s-era Ray Charles or Stevie Wonder—promises a laid-back, silky-smooth trip through the soul and R&B of the ’60s and ’70s. Warm, reassuringly familiar, and as soothing as a cup of cocoa on a frosty winter afternoon, Love Letter delivers. It eschews trendy guest appearances, hot producers, and Auto-Tune in favor of proudly old-fashioned soul delivered with a wink and a smile from a consummate showman. The disc sometimes plays like a sequel to Happy People, another album whose commitment to lifting spirits and soothing weary souls qualified as either psychotic or heroic depending on your perspective. Like Happy People, Love Letter feels cohesive and consistent almost to a fault; Kelly falls into such a seductive, inviting groove early on that minor curveballs and deviations register disproportionately. On “Taxi Cab,” he finesses a Penthouse Forum-by-way-of Dirty Mind-era Prince scenario (here’s a hint: it involves having sex in a taxi) into a sordid sexual melodrama. On “A Love Letter Christmas,” he gets loose and goofy with an epic cowbell solo. Seriously. On his website, Kelly wrote that Love Letter represents his attempt to give the entire world a hug. Mission accomplished. “Now I’m going to tell you who I am and what I’m looking for,” Kelly sings, even though at this point, the public knows exactly who he is and what he’s looking for. And yet we love him all the same.
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