It began in April at Coachella.
That's where R. Kelly made a surprise appearance with the French band Phoenix, delighting (and maybe befuddling) an indie-minded crowd only minimally aligned with the audience that's helped drive Kelly to R&B superstardom.
Since then the singer has been on a kind of outreach mission with performances at the Pitchfork and Bonnaroo festivals and hit duets with Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.
Carefully planned, the activity has undoubtedly boosted Kelly's profile among pop listeners, a savvy strategy in the run-up to Tuesday's release of his new album, "Black Panties." But last week the attention took on a sour note with a bit on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" in which the English actor Benedict Cumberbatch read lyrics from Kelly's song "Genius."
The gag, which quickly went viral, was presenting itself as a goof on Cumberbatch's patrician demeanor. In reality, though, it felt more insidious: a respected white star holding up an artifact of black culture — "the actual lyrics," as Kimmel described them with some astonishment — for a round of pearl-clutching derision.
On "Black Panties" Kelly, 46, sounds like he knew such a turn was inevitable.
A pronounced shift from his last two albums, both gently produced retro-soul ventures, the new record returns to the more aggressive raunch with which Kelly made his name. (He's referred to it as a kind of spiritual follow-up to his 20-year-old bedroom classic, "12 Play.")
There's a song called "Cookie" built around an explicit Oreo metaphor. There's an unprintably titled cut that Kelly calls "a sex proposal," with dozens of mentions of the female genitalia.
And there is, of course, "Genius," in which Kelly reassures a lover, "I'm blessed with the insight to please your body / Tonight you're lying with a sex genius."
Cumberbatch, needless to say, added nothing to the line.
Throughout the album, the music is harder-edged than on "Love Letter" and "Write Me Back," which exactingly reproduced the lush sound of old records by Sam Cooke and the O'Jays. For "Spend That," with a guest verse by Jeezy, Kelly recruited DJ Mustard, the L.A.-based producer known for his lean-and-mean rap tracks; the result oozes menace.
Perhaps that's simply Kelly shoring up his street cred following the collaboration with Bieber, an approach that almost certainly accounts for the drab "My Story," in which he and 2 Chainz insist that becoming famous — going "from being broke to sleeping in Versace shirts," as Kelly puts it — hasn't softened them.
But amid all the bluster and pornography, there's also an appealingly indignant streak to much of "Black Panties" that feels like Kelly's response to newcomers who might be inclined to reduce him to caricature. It's a classic bait-and-switch that toys with our expectations and our appetite for titillation.
"This song goes out to all the people out there that be running they mouth," he sings in "Shut Up," the latest in a long line of Kelly monologues set to music, "and they don't know what the hell they saying."
That sly self-awareness doesn't mean the album is invulnerable to the occasional lapse in Kelly's judgment. If his use of disturbingly violent sexual imagery in songs like "Tear It Up" and "Throw This Money on You," for instance, makes us think of the child-pornography charges he was acquitted of in 2008, that's on Kelly, not us; ditto the exceptionally vicious skit that precedes the song with the unprintable title.
And with 17 tracks on the deluxe edition, "Black Panties" is less consistent than the several albums that preceded it, including 2009's superior (but equally bawdy) "Untitled." Here, so-so cuts like "Right Back" and "All the Way," a meandering duet with Kelly Rowland, give the impression that the singer might've padded the album in his determination to get it out in time to capitalize on the renown he's established this year.
But then he'll bust out a steamy slow jam as gorgeous — and as generous in spirit — as "Crazy Sex," an earnest invitation to any number of imaginative acts that can't be quoted in a family newspaper. (One relatively mild exception: "Let's do it on the balcony, let everybody watch / We don't care, 'cause we in our zone.") It'd probably sound great on some pop star's New Year's Eve special.