Thirtysomething R&B superstar R. Kelly stands accused of taping himself having sex with underage girls and collecting child pornography. Hard to believe any songwriter in that position would want to mine his libido for fresh material -- and yet the out-on-bail Kelly has done nothing to temper the boldness of his sexually explicit output. So far in 2003, he's released an album of lascivious, occasionally outright dirty soul songs called Chocolate Factory; scored a hit with a song ("Ignition") that actually includes the line "So buckle up 'cause this can get bumpy, babe/Now hit the lights and check out all my functions, babe"; and enabled Ronald Isley's ongoing creepy old man phase as Mr. Biggs on the Isley Brothers' album Body Kiss.

With JS' Ice Cream, however, Kelly tops himself in the audacity department. Here, he takes the R. Kelly formula and applies it to the female voice -- and sorta succeeds. Specifically, he writes presumably tender bedroom songs for two sisters (of legal age, we hope) named Kim and Kandy Johnson to perform. The wholesome Johnsons, who thank God and their parents in the liner notes and look sweet enough, give life to Kelly's subtle fetishism. They appear in the album art's photos in pink, with tasteful pigtails and hoop earrings and, on the album cover, in loose-fitting men's clothing. And by playing along with Kelly on the eight songs he contributes, JS excuses Kelly's perversely lubricated use of sexual metaphor. "31 flavors ain't got nothing on me," they sing on the innuendo-plastered title track. And of course, the lyrics reveal, homey gets himself a scoop of that ice cream while Chocolate Factory plays on the stereo.

Leave it to the Johnson sisters, thankfully, to balance the proceedings with dignity, so that with their rich, understated singing voices, they sell the desire and accentuate what inarguably are great melodies. And perhaps their inherent professionalism humbles Kelly a little. His vocal interludes are kept to a minimum, and he's deferential enough to provide a song called "Sister," in which the narrator counsels her sister through a trying breakup.

It's up to a jury to decide if R. Kelly is truly a sexual monster, but his efforts on Ice Cream at least prove he's talented enough to cross the gender divide, albeit only briefly, for the artistic betterment of women.


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