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That same year, Kelly recorded "I Believe I Can Fly" for the Space Jam soundtrack. That perpetually uplifting song, free of talk about crotches, became a crossover monster hit and won Kelly three Grammy awards. Not that Rolling Stone is even relevant anymore, but pop writer Rob Sheffield glowingly writes: "For the five minutes of 'I Believe,' you hear seasons change, tides turn and colts grow into stallions; Dorothy returns to Kansas, Moses beholds the Promised Land, Babar is crowned king of the elephants, Aeanas reaches Rome." He also says, "There's no point getting sick of the song now, since you'll be hearing it in commercials, grade-school talent shows, figure-skating exhibitions and Very Special Episodes for the rest of your born days." (He's right. Last fall, I attended a church talent show at an outdoor basketball court, and a trio of young boys sang a minichoreographed, a cappella version of the song. I tell ya, there wasn't a dry eye in the house -- mainly because it was raining -- but I'm pretty sure audience members were moved as well.)
The success of "I Believe" sparked a new side to Kelly: the pop troubadour. That same Kelly that had penned and produced stirring pop power ballads for Michael Jackson and Toni Braxton was now a part of Kelly's macked-out persona. Would all the homies and hoodrats who had been down with Kelly since '92's "She's Got that Vibe" think he was going soft? Kelly's fourth and most recent album, '98's R., puts all the fears of possible softness to rest but once again raises the question: What kind of performer is he? Working with a slate of hip-hop producers, including the prestigious Track Masters team of Poke & Tone and Bad Boy's Sean "Puffy" Combs and Stevie J., Kelly crossbreeds his more intimate, personable R&B flavor with the hip-hop attitude he tried on 12 Play. With such capitalistic titles as "Spendin' Money," "Only the Loot Can Make Me Happy" and "Money Makes the World Go Round," Kelly simply ends up sounding like a rehash of the current lot of glam-rappers (Jay-Z, Nas, Foxy Brown, Noreaga), most of whom also make guest appearances here. On R., we also get to hear the pop R. Kelly as he works in maudlin epics such as "I Believe," "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time" and "I'm Your Angel," featuring -- I shit you not -- Celine Dion.
The best songs on R. are the ones solely written, produced and performed by him. Songs such as "Reality," "One Man," "When a Woman's Fed Up" and "Suicide" carry a powerful, bluesy weight and a gospel-truth resonance that unleash their impact on the unsuspecting listener. If I were Kelly (or as comedian Jamie Foxx likes to call him, "Arewa"), these are the kind of songs I would stick with. These testifying tunes pack more punch than any timid rap number or histrionic pop ballad. But, alas, I am not the man they refer to as R. Kelly, an enigma -- as a great philosopher once said -- wrapped up in a riddle, covered in secret sauce. Only he truly knows the methods to his madnesses. All we can do is sit back and hope he doesn't change his name to a damn symbol. As the man sings on one of his songs from R.: "Everybody is trying / To figure me out / What the hell is wrong with y'all / Just let me live my life."
R. Kelly performs Thrusday, June 10, at the Compaq Center, 10 Greenway Plaza, at 7 p.m. with Foxy Brown, Nas and others. Tickets are $47.50 and $65. Call (713)629-3700.
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