For me, it certainly wasn't when the tape, um, leaked. I still haven't seen the tape, even though everyone I know has, including my best friend, my mama and Bob Saget. If you've been in an ice cave in Greenland for the past year or so, this would be the tape that allegedly shows Kelly partaking in sex and several golden showers with a 14-year-old girl. The tape that got Kelly indicted on 21 counts of child-porn charges. The tape that turned many rap-music bootleggers into kiddie-porn distributors. The tape that had everyone calling Kelly a pedophile. (Actually, the correct term would be ephebophile, since the technical term for adults who lust after teenagers is ephebophilia.) Nope, it wasn't that. And it certainly wasn't even when Kelly, as a precursor to the current chaos, caused an uproar when he married his then-teenage protégée, the late Aaliyah, in 1994.
Nope, it wasn't that. In my opinion, it started way, way back on his 1993 debut solo album, 12 Play, when he composed a track called "I Like the Crotch on You." A choppy dance number that found Kelly laying down his extreme desires (booties, mostly), "Crotch" had to be the first instance in which Kelly's fetishistic, somewhat disturbing sexuality managed to ooze out of his music. It also had to be the first time many Kelly fans did a double take of disbelief when they heard it blare out of their speakers -- was this man really singing about crotches?
Prince notwithstanding, no contemporary black-music performer has constantly grappled with his dark side in his music as publicly as R. Kelly. Through five solo albums now, Kelly has consistently walked that oh-so-fine line between heartfelt poet and potential sex offender. On one song, he's convincing a lover that he'll never leave her. On the next, he's singing about feeling up said lover's booty. Turn on the adult-contemporary station and you hear him singing an uplifting song about how he believes he can fly. Switch over to the R&B dial and you hear him singing an uplifting song about going "half on a baby." This Jekyll-and-Hyde ghettofabulousness has worked well in his favor, making him look like a sexually adventurous musical genius, the kind of guy who could compose a sweeping love ballad about the best piece of ass he's ever had -- in fact, he did, with "The Greatest Sex" on his TP-2.com album.
And because he shrouds his perversions in beauteous, often eloquent musical compositions, many audiences have chosen to ignore or overlook his freak within. As long as he made choice booty-call music, they imply, who are we to complain? But, as Dave Chappelle once noted, the signs of Kelly's predilections, his carnal implosion, were always there in his music. (In retrospect, "Crotch" did seem more like a cry for help than something to get your boogie on to.) Chappelle then launched into a video in which the comedian masquerades as Kelly and performs a tune called "I Wanna Pee on You." Girls get doused with vats of urine, and Chappelle's Kelly declares that "the only thing that makes my life complete / Is when I turn your face into a toilet seat."
Although that takeoff -- or as the Brits would call it, piss-take -- was mercilessly, undoubtedly dead on, there's a good chance Kelly's fan base didn't find it all that tickling. In a phenomenon similar to the O.J. case, it seems black audiences have gotten more supportive/protective of the man ever since the tape surfaced in the mailbox of Chicago Sun-Times pop critic Jim DeRogatis. Pundits and assorted outraged white folk have barely contained their disgust, but switch over to BET's Comic View any night of the week and watch as the audience moans with disapproval whenever a comic does a zinger about Kelly's predicament. When Chris Rock cracked on Kelly during this year's Video Music Awards -- Rock said Kelly had to sit "way up in the balcony" since the Olsen twins were seated on the ground floor -- black-radio DJs went on the airwaves the next day and declared Rock out of bounds. (Apparently they didn't have a problem with Rock's most moan-worthy line that night: that faded pop star-turned-American Idol judge Paula Abdul has about as much credibility judging singers as Christopher Reeve has judging a dance contest.)
But why have fans and audiences, many of whom have seen the notorious footage, remained loyal to Kelly? In a word, talent -- as a performer, and even more so as a songwriter-producer. There is no denying that Kelly has been the most lyrically stunning R&B songsmith of recent years, invoking the rhythmic passion of the '70s soul artists (Mayfield, Gaye, Pendergrass) who obviously inspired him. (Kelly has worked with Ron Isley of those Isleys quite extensively.) Kelly makes captivating tunes that no one else does, turning kitchen-sink dramas into five-minute songs the way Douglas Sirk used to lay them out in two-hour movies.
And audiences have lapped it up. People don't want him to change a thing. One female fan hoped Kelly wouldn't get all spiritual, à la Al Green, and turn his back on the sinful, secular music that made him a star. Agreed, it does seem like a cop-out when celebrity heathens stop backsliding and suddenly find Jesus. But her take on it appeared more troubling since it sounded like she was in denial about Kelly's kinky demons. Like most fans -- especially females -- she was willing to give Kelly a pass, as long as the sensitive-superfreak persona stayed intact. It's discouraging -- even the most intense R. Kelly fan has to worry if the man has serious, harmful problems.
And even the most intense R. Kelly fan also has to wonder about his appetite for self-destruction. "Osama bin Laden is the only one who knows what I'm going through," Kelly actually said in a recent interview in Blender. No, really. For the record: Osama bin Laden is responsible for the most horrific terrorist attack in American history. R. Kelly allegedly pissed on a kid on tape. Can't really compare the two, can ya? If anything, he has more in common with Bill Clinton. Like Clinton, Kelly appears to take masochistic joy in nearly destroying his image -- all for kinky sex.
But all that is moot now. All that matters now is that Kelly is back out on the road, and thousands of black people from miles around will come out and show their love. But no matter how much you may get into his jams, no matter how much you may groove to "Bump n' Grind" or "Sex Me" or that damn song he did for Batman & Robin, this question has to burn in the back of your mind: Did this muthafucka really pee on a 14-year-old girl on camera?
You can't really enjoy looking at anybody's crotch when something like that has seeped into your cranium.