Serenading the Boys

R. Kelly don't see nothing wrong—but then again, it's pretty much all his fault in the first place. Him and those Jodeci boys, decked out in matching flame-retardant overalls. At the turn of the last decade, they were the ones thrusting hips into hip-hop, shifting attention from whose dick was bigger to who could use it better. Soon enough, pretty-boy crooners were rocking do-rags and ice, thugging it up like wannabe rappers in search of a rhyme book.

Teddy Riley may have seen it first, but Guy were too pretty, more swing than new jack. Keith Sweat was too . . . sweaty. Luther Vandross's eyelashes were too long, and he'd sooner go Peabo Bryson than lay down thug hooks. There was always New Edition and its profligate spin-offs—O.G. Bobby Brown, the angular, soul-glowing Johnny Gill, freak nasties Bell Biv DeVoe, and last-man-picked Ralph Tresvant—but none of them could shake those sticky candy girls. It sped right past Brian McKnight, who was tripping out at the Neil Diamond concert. Pretenders like Case and Montell Jordan took their swipes, but learned that it took more than a football jersey and a Def Jam contract to move the streets.

So what does it mean to be a rapper's singer, one as likely to serenade his boys (strictly platonically, of course) as his ladyfriend? It's conflicted ground, straddling worlds that demand authority and surrender, misogyny and tenderness, trust and deceit. Once hip-hop had created new, seemingly immutable masculine forms, r&b spiraled into identity crisis. What was once a genre of dignity and stature got relegated to the suburbs—less real, more frill. There was no room for a Gaye, a Cooke, a Pendergrass, a Mayfield, a Hathaway—men who were, well, men. Up against hip-hop's increasingly gritty tales, r&b's potential for empowerment withered away, retreating into its in-house massage parlor.

Profound narcissist R. Kelly
photo: Reisig & Taylor
Profound narcissist R. Kelly


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Thus, in a time generally hostile to lilting gangsterism in hip-hop, R. Kelly was damn near a category-killer. He entered the fray with, in relatively quick succession, the frictive "Bump N' Grind," the syrupy "Honey Love," the none-too-subtle "Sex Me," and the paean to deflowering "It Seems Like You're Ready" (and this overlooking gems like "Definition of a Hotti" and "I Like the Crotch on You"). Within a span of two years, Kelly established himself as the player to hate, the one who took the hotties home from the hip-hop spot because he spat his game with dulcet edge.

But the hands of time have treated Kelly a bit rough—his failed affair with female protégé Aaliyah is the stuff of dysfunctional legend, and the passing of his mother four years back has by all accounts made the reclusive R. even more enigmatic. Drawing upon this range of pain, his 1998 album, simply titled R., was his most ambitious. "Did You Ever Think" shows the player in repose, wondering whether success cures; "When a Woman's Fed Up" is a gender-battle answer record so thorough only the man who fed her up in the first place could write it; "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time" became an instant standard, stripped bare to showcase the clarity of Kelly's voice.

And what a voice it is. Kelly's hypersexuality has always been easier to swallow because of his stunning vocal quality. No wanton arpeggios here. Strictly clarion calls from below the belt. Even his high school vocal teacher, a churchgoing woman, doesn't mind his content so long as he's working those chops. That said, is a magnum opus of the genre, milking both Kelly's recent reflection and his baser inclinations for all they're worth.

But Kelly is a narcissist at heart, and while his insight into the fairer sex is often profound, it's really all about him. "Open your eyes," he commands on the album intro. "Surprise, you've entered 12 Play 2." It's like the woman in question has been sentenced to an 80-minute term in a bizarre sexual theme park with the gluteo-obsessive Kelly as tour guide. "Strip for You" may pretend to be a gendered bender, but it's really just an excuse for his "trench coat [to] hit the floor." On "Feelin' on Yo Booty," Kelly proclaims, "This is my song for real, no doubt."

Would that it were so simple. Unlike his earliest work, where his eroticism was so extreme as to be benign, here his pathological self-involvement leaps from the physical realm to the ever more manipulable spaces of the psyche. The menacingly titled "Don't You Say No" expounds upon the transactive nature of intimacy: "I been doing all these things for you/ Now what you gonna do for me?/I ain't trying to spend no cash/If you ain't spending that ass." As his partner remains hopelessly trapped, he does even more damage to her spirit. On "I Don't Mean It," he attempts an apologia, but only ends up tightening the vise: "Sometimes I know that I can take it just a little bit too far/But yo, my heart is good/So baby, you don't have to worry/You're gonna see a change."

But just as easily as he brings pain, he feels it. He seems genuinely shocked at his own shortcomings—"Even though I've lied, you still trust me somehow"—and dwells on them more thoroughly than any of his crooning, or rapping, peers. "A Woman's Threat" seems to be aimed right back at himself—Kelly is by far the genre's most self-loathing player. He sobs his way through "I Wish," both the original about his lost mother and the reprise about his dead homie, and by album's end, the thrilling "The Storm Is Over Now," R. Kelly is redeemed—penitent, cleansed of sin, and riding the Kirk Franklin Express to a brighter tomorrow.

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