If there is one thing that audiences and listeners of black music can't tolerate in their artists, it is being enigmatic. Being musically ambiguous can work in the favor of artists in rock, country or even jazz, but in contemporary R&B and hip-hop, the general rule is either we black fans know who you are and what you're about or we don't know you at all. Notice how quickly The Artist Formerly Known as Prince was taken out of the loop when he got all perplexing and changed his name to a symbol.
There are a small few who can be as shadowy as an Orson Welles movie and still maintain mainstream popularity in black music. One who can is R. Kelly, the most unknown well-known artist working in R&B. As a performer, he's as enticingly charismatic as they come. He's probably the only man who can utter the line, "Put on all your clothes and let's go to the IHOP, baby," in a song and pull it off with all the gentle machismo of a pimp sweet-talking one of his ladies.
Kelly has been hailed as everything from the most gifted R&B singer/songwriter of the '90s to the thinking man's Curtis Mayfield. But knowing who R. Kelly is is another thing entirely. If you ask Kelly (which is damn near impossible since the notoriously press-shy Kelly rarely takes part in interviews), he may say there are two of him. There is Robert Kelly, the quiet, God-fearing performer who loves to do "super-regular" things like sing in the church choir, play basketball (during the summer of '97, Kelly played for the minor-league Atlantic City Seagulls) and eat at McDonald's. Then there's R. Kelly, mack of all macks, playa of all playas, freak of all freaks, that bald cat in the Oakley shades who will do anything he possibly can to... get tha drawz!
Being a two-sided icon has also made Kelly a reclusive one, especially after his much-publicized quickie marriage to teenage protegee Aaliyah in '94. (Of course, they broke up, and Aaliyah has since gone on to make beautiful music, literally, with Timbaland, starting with '96's One in a Million.) As a recent article on Kelly in Details says, "It's hard to think of another multiplatinum superstar the public knows so little about." If R. Kelly the man has gotten more complex to figure out, then R. Kelly the musician has gotten even more puzzling. Is Kelly R&B's last great romantic, a pop mastermind or the biggest freakazoid in all the land?
This much we do know about Mr. Kelly:
He was born on January 8 (Elvis's birthday!) to single mom Joann Kelly. Growing up poor on the South Side of Chicago, he often sang on subway platforms for change. A music teacher at Chicago's revered Kenwood Academy taught him how to harness his musical abilities. But at one point in his life, he was selling hosiery.
Kelly first hit the music scene in '92 when he fronted the new-jack outfit Public Announcement, whose album Born into the '90s hit platinum. Audiences got a taste of the R. Kelly to come when sultry numbers such as "Honey Love" and "Slow Jam" rose to the top of the R&B charts. In '94 Kelly hit the record-selling gold mine with the successful-yet-overrated 12 Play. The album's biggest single, "Bump N' Grind," went to No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts. Although audiences ate up Kelly's mack-daddy veneer and funky-cum-smooth delivery, the album was engrossed in schizophrenic unevenness. Kelly sounded as if he didn't know whether he wanted to be a quiet-storm crooner or a roughneck rapper. While Kelly excelled with such slow, tingly numbers as "It Seems Like You're Ready" and "Your Body's Callin'," he showed stilted hip-hop flow with "Homie Lover Friend" and "Back to the Hood of Things." And how can you do a tender cover version of The Spinners' "Sadie" (which pays tribute to his mom, who passed away from cancer in '93) on the same album with the ever-regrettable "I Like the Crotch on You"?
Despite the lack of identity Kelly revealed on 12 Play, he did become a hot property among R&B hitmakers, becoming one of the most sought-after producers in the R&B biz. He started sizing up songs for established acts such as Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Michael and Janet Jackson and The Isley Brothers, and young upstarts such as Aaliyah and Changing Faces. He also developed a rep as a diligent remixer, often revamping better versions of his own songs. (His smoky remix of "Your Body's Callin'" ignites more heat than a Shannon Tweed movie.) One more example of his power as a master producer is the current release of the Life soundtrack, in which he brings out the best in performers such as K-Ci and Jo Jo, Maxwell, Kelly Price and, intriguingly enough, country chanteuse Trisha Yearwood. Kelly wrote and produced their songs.
Kelly did manage to mature musically in '96 with the release of his third album, the centered R. Kelly. Fortunately, he put his hip-hop aspirations on hold as he focused on his ability to be bewitchingly wooing ("You Remind Me of Something," "Step In My Room") as well as achingly forlorn ("I Can't Sleep Baby," and "As I Look into My Life").
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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.