R. Kelly wants to stick his key in your ignition, feel on your booty and have sex in the kitchen...by the stove...on the counter...by the buttered rolls. He's a genre figurehead: an R&B thug, the Pied Piper of R&B and the "R" in R&B who wants to love you like a real freak should while keeping it on the down-low.
But that's not all. He's also a Christian, torn between what he knows to be right and what his body craves. Sometimes the skin wins. When it does, he asks heaven for a hug.
Shit is complicated. Back to Genesis.
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 713-227-3974
Tuesday, March 14
If the '70s were the golden age of R&B and soul (they were), then the '80s were littered with its dead and dusty bones. The Reagan era took the soul out of soul. Listen to most contributions to the genre made during that time, and you'll find horribly thin keyboard templates, boxed drums with no punch and synthetic horns (think KCOH on any given day). Urban youths were busy painting a new hip-hop horizon and couldn't be bothered to resuscitate R&B's suppurating corpse.
What the music needed was a dust-up, and Kelly came complete with a Swiffer and a bottle of Pledge. In 1992, the slick Chi-town lady's man picked up Prince's "Darling Nikki" ball and ran with it, helping to create a new wrinkle in black music: the fuck jam.
Where earlier references to sex tended to be shrouded in innuendo, Kelly pulled back the covers to expose a carnality so explicit, many of his early performances were stopped by the authorities. Songs like "Sex Me" and "Bump 'n Grind" made Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" seem subtle. Even Barry White was white-bread next to this guy.
But if there's one thing R. Kelly has mastered over his mind-blowing 15-year musical journey, it's the ability to play both halves of his psyche against each other.
Where his early work suggested he might be a sexually charged one-trick pony, soon Kelly was carving out a much more densely woven musical tapestry. Songs like "I Wish," "A Woman's Threat" and "When a Woman's Fed Up" showed that this was a man equally adept at cranking out sophisticated, emotionally wrought mid-tempo fits of conscience alongside all those bone-happy club bangers. Furthermore, Kelly began penning tunes for an impressive array of diverse artists Celine Dion, Ginuwine, Janet and Michael Jackson, B2K and the Isley Brothers among them.
In short, the man is a dynamo with no shortage of what it takes to be anointed as music's greatest living artist. This is not a statement brushed with several layers of hyperbolic paint: Such a title is a tricky fruit to cut. But no matter your criteria, Kells has it covered.
We'll take it point by point for the haters.
Record industry blowhards would, of course, want to consider the numbers. This one's easy. Kelly was the top-selling male solo artist of the '90s, and the man with that decade's most Top 40 hits. The 21st century hasn't seen him slow down: He's sold 15 million records in the iPod era, not even counting his two Best of Both Worlds collaboration albums with another great, Jay-Z.
What's even more impressive is that Kelly has been able to sell such large numbers while maintaining a healthy dose of street cred. When you consider the fact that most modern R&B artists with consistent record sales (Usher, Omarion, Nick Cannon) play to the teenage-vanilla-TRL circuit, these tea leaves begin to read themselves. Kells has successfully crossed over while keeping a foot firmly planted in his 'hood.
Of course, that's not all. Kelly is the only artist in history to continue selling as many albums as he does while facing multiple counts of child pornography. Which brings us to our next point.
Serious, heavyweight artists throughout history have tended to be at least somewhat troubled. Think van Gogh (ate paint, attacked his colleagues, cut off his ear and gave it to a whore); think Louis-Ferdinand Celine (known unabashed Nazi sympathizer still considered by many to be the ultimate "writer's writer"). Placid, straitlaced squares are better off being accountants or, worse, Michael Bolton. This isn't to excuse Kelly of the serious and despicable charges he faces: That would be unconscionable. But it is odd that the folks that want to see a pretrial Kelly run up a pole by his pole are typically the same flag-waving Hannity types who believe even making allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib or Gitmo is sacrilegious. Read that constitution again, guys. Innocent until proven blah, blah, blah.
Anyway, back on point: Kelly has been known to travel with a bag o' soul-searched crazy: taking on shifts at after-hours drive-thru windows to get "back in touch"; quitting tours before completion for reasons that are, at best, suspect; and, most famously, recording a 12-chapter hip-hopera featuring a pear-loving fat girl named Bridget who gets impregnated by a midget.
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Also, in order to be the greatest living artist in music you have to believe you are the greatest living artist in music. This requires ego. Lennon didn't compare the Beatles to Jesus for no reason, after all. Kells believes he can fly. Enough said.
That selfsame ego has also helped Kelly skip the rope of greatness by never playing it safe. Say what you will about his lyrics (sexually deviant, comedic, whatever), but the man breaks down walls. On top of Kelly's otherworldly "Trapped in the Closet" opus sits this fact: He's consistently gotten lewder with each release since the porn charges, unabashedly making the art he wants to make despite looks of disapproving horror. Balls? Dementia? Both are compelling.
An artist possessing any one of these traits would likely have an impressive career. If you have just chart status, you are Creed. If you have just street cred, you are Ghostface. If you're just crazy, you're Old Dirty Bastard. If you have just ego, you are Kid Rock. To just break down walls means you're...Klaus Nomi.
Combine them all and you've got R. Kelly, a man who knows what he's talking about when he loudly proclaims himself "The World's Greatest!"