The Buffet, R. Kelly’s 13th album, is like the 12 before it: hard to enjoy objectively. Per usual, we’re confronted with the prospect of an allegedly videotaped (and several-times testified against) statutory rapist trying to sweet-talk us for almost the duration of the thing. One development that made the cognitive dissonance more palatable post-trial was that the man behind such straight-faced mating calls as “Bump ‘n’ Grind” and “Feelin on Yo’ Booty” developed a sense of humor that sort of preemptively parodied himself before the growing mass of haters could reroute his success. You can’t buy that kind of PR move.
And so a tune called “Sex Planet” that builds to — uhuh — a joke about Uranus came to exemplify the third act of his career, which peaked with a 33-part soap opera called “Trapped in the Closet” that began the narrative proclaiming Kells to be a genius. An immaculate singer, self-producer, and relentlessly conceptual songwriter, he’s flirted with earning this dubious distinction throughout his dubious career, but geniuses have historically made a lot more great albums. More often than not, Kelly’s best albums (1995’s Isley-swirled R. Kelly, 1998’s smooth-playing double R.) and songs (the party-hearty “Ignition (Remix),” the mock-scandalized Usher duet “Same Girl”) have steered away from overbearing and overcorrecting altogether; they’re just nice. Warm, well-turned R&B sitcoms with the occasional joke gone right could be his legacy if he’d let it— 2009’s “Echo” adapted The-Dream’s velvet layering for a “fingernails in the Worldmusicfestse” freak jam that culminates in a yodel.
But almost this same week two years ago he was pleading to “Marry the Pussy” on Black Panties just as on 2010’s Love Letter and 2012’s Write Me Back he was trying on Percy Sledge’s shoes trying to make us forget 12 Play’s subtlety-free “I Like the Crotch on You.” Kelly’s been zero to 100 and back so many times you could say he started from Uranus and ended up here. He isn’t low-key anything.
Thus the first three minutes of The Buffet alone deliver “I’m about to get you mad pregnant,” “my lyrics got a big dick,” and an all-you-can-eat joke that k.d. lang beat him to 20 years ago. Which is to say nothing about the headlong choir that quadruples him on the word “Sex!” or how his music “put a molly in your ear,” or the “fitted cap” he MacGyvers out of one woman’s genitals. Some of it’s did-he-do-that uproarious, some’s why-did-he-do-that embarrassing, and usually it’s hard to tell the difference. But you can bet that “I’m just metaphorically speaking” is a line his lawyer’s advised him to put in there these days.
The first half of The Buffet is probably his most consistent “funny” work since 2007’s premise-happy Double Up, with special thanks to the frenetic realness of “Anything Goes” (“IHOP is the only thing left to do”) and the irresistible “Marching Band,” where Kelly takes Jason Derulo’s “Trumpets” to its (scato)logical extreme. Now 48, he wastes no time peppering his lyrics with face-sitting or references to his own past hits (“Half on a Baby” and “I Believe I Can Fly” callbacks abound). For all of his threats to get in his rocket ship and tell haters bye, the genius is perpetually rushing to salvage his legacy by stuffing in as much musical output as possible between his scandal and his death.
At a brisk 13 tracks, The Buffet mostly leans in Kelly’s favor, working out syntactical muscles by rhyming “seen her” with “demeanor” or sophomoric ones by terming sex “poker and I’m going all in.” His duets are shrewd: On “Let’s Be Real Now,” Tinashe gets to showcase chops that the gridlocked slink of Aquarius was too cool for, while “Switch Up” is a skittering Lil Wayne collaboration paced like a Rae Sremmurd banger. Even the biggest potential meltdown here, a duet with his 17-year-old daughter Ariirayé (neé Joann Kelly), called “Wanna Be There,” is a winningly bold apology for his parental failings that recalls, of all things, “Father / Daughter Dialogue” by folkie deadbeat-dad Loudon Wainwright III.
But around track ten, the retro-soul meant to add variety — something that most Kelly albums lack — instead brings the fantasy of a Great Kelly Album crashing back to Earth. “Get Out of Here With Me” and the boring, oddly chosen single “Backyard Party” expose his weakness for corn. “Wake Up Everybody” (“Making love til you scream”) is a rote concept even for him, and even though the prioritization anthem “Sextime” sincerely declares you more important than a flight or a club, it’s still an R. Kelly song called “Sextime” in 2015. (Was “Business Time” too subtle or just already taken?)
So one more frustrating time, The Buffet is better than just another R. Kelly album, but not enough to be worth saying so outside of a review, much less on a year-end list; call it a good one-night stand. For an “anything goes” guy you think he’d be more adventurous; at long last, his on-record persona feels brazen without coming off as entitled to his conquests. If he’s really a genius he’ll find more music to go with it.