Although dubious of lyric, 12 Play still sounds contemporary and frequently surprising.
Daryl Easlea 2010
Although he’d made his debut proper backed by Public Announcement the previous year, on the album Born Into the ‘90s, R. Kelly’s first solo affair 12 Play was a quantum leap stylistically and production-wise, setting out his manifesto as love-man par excellence. Although there are still traces of his former straight-ahead RnB, 12 Play broke new ground, with his wistful blend of classic soul beats, G-funk and new jack swing.
This album played a large part in defining the urban genre. Kelly comes across as every inch the unreconstructed lover, with Your Body’s Callin’ establishing the pattern of the album. With a smooth, crystal clear production, love, lust and romance intertwine in Kelly’s languid vocal. He clearly sees nothing wrong with a little Bump N’Grind, and on It Seems Like You’re Ready he doesn’t hide his lusty intentions: “your body is my playground, let me lick you up and down, let me make you feel like a woman should”.
Contradictions in soul are nothing new. Marvin Gaye could sing about familial, spiritualistic and humanistic love on What’s Going On and then follow it up two years later with the showboating bedroom shenanigans of Let’s Get It On. When Kelly veers between the two on successive tracks on the same album, though, it seems somehow jarring. The gospel sincerity of the paean to his mother, Sadie, is followed by the two-part Sex Me. Running at over 11 minutes, and going at a “69 tempo”, it comes complete with ripping zips, copious body feeling, sweating, and “wet ladies” putting “him inside”. It is as explicit as is it soulful. The album closes with 12 Play, Kelly such a lover that mere four-play is not enough.
It was with little surprise that Kelly ended up working with The Isley Brothers, as this album sounds based on their balladry. His voice may be not be on a par with Ronnie Isley’s but it certainly runs it a close second. Although dubious of lyric, 12 Play still sounds contemporary and frequently surprising, and is an album that broke new ground. Although it embraced possibly every soul cliché in the book, Kelly stamped them with his own vocal, writing and production authority.