The Bronzeville Hop

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Leave aside whether R. Kelly is a bad, bad man and ask what his recent treatment at the hands of the courts would do to any man. The case made against him is the result of over three years of surveillance, investigation, and prying. Ken Starr had less persistence. Twice after arranging to turn himself in, Kelly's been arrested abruptly and aggressively anyway, hauled off in cuffs. It wouldn't be this way if he wasn't black, and if the police weren't after his dignity as much as anything else.

So dignity is what R. Kelly offers on his new album. If you've heard "Ignition," you're probably laughing in disbelief. But this is the man who insisted on his last album that "inside of your walls there will dwell a Capricorn/that will feast your body all night." Chocolate Factory is as dignified as he gets. Having heard last year's never-released Loveland album, I can tell you that Kelly wasn't always responding like this—among the treasures lost is a ten-minute melodrama where, spurned by the church, he appeals directly to the big guy and is blessed with grace. By the time of "Heaven I Need A Hug" (Kelly's big post-arrest single) he had already mellowed out, declaring "church folks you need to stop judging/or you will be the first to be judged," switching up from storefront scripture's direct relationship to the creator to a more middle-class mediated conception of faith. He's not spittin' back in reactive hate anymore—more like quiet unbending resignation, a retreat into fantasy.

Chicago has always identified with its local boy made gold, but Chocolate Factory's "Step In The Name Of Love" is the first time Kelly has represented back to his city. Trace Chicago steppin' back enough, and people say it has roots in the jitterbug, which is sort of like saying that glam rock has roots in the blues, or that Kwanza has roots in Africa. True on some level; not that helpful to understanding what's actually going on. Steppin' is an institution by force of will. Hardly any tracks are explicitly made for steppin', but occasional tracks—sometimes b-sides, sometimes otherwise flops—just happen to be perfect. There's no one steppin' beat, tempo, or even time-signature; you can count in eights or sixes.

So, like Kelly says on the introduction to the song's remix, "Steppin' is not just a dance, it's a culture." But, as I understand it, more like a wannabe culture—one "revived" and "maintained" from its inception, one that (like Kelly) wants to integrate but doesn't even know exactly into what, face pressed so hard against the glass for so long it starts to feel instinctive. Its sanctuary of faux-cotillion elegance lives in fear of the next moment, when violence on the streets spills into the crowded basement—or of dawn, when last night's king and queen go back to work in a hostile world.

No accident, then, that on Chocolate Factory Kelly's voice, always spectacular, is at its most sweet and plaintive, all the low-end loverman growl stripped out: less sermonizing than praying, less flash than finesse. But even at his most crass and sexual he never shared the gangsta ethos—he's a one-woman freak, or at least one at a time. And for that time, even if an instant, that woman is the only one that matters. The focus and intensity of his voice steps and slides over the tracks by its own rules. Often, there's no song proper, just long runs of melodic improvisation; no structure to hang on to and follow, just a silver-tongued player holding to a suspended moment. One example: "Forever" is a marriage proposal, but its trick is folding infinity into its span, reducing "forever" to semantic invocation without reducing it to semantic sleight-of-hand.

This is a profound part of how Kelly changed the game: a rootless flow of expressive storytelling that brings hip-hop into r&b through its narrative instead of its beats, but doesn't move 'em in the club so much as lead 'em home at 2 a.m. and to church the next morning. Kelly's albums following 1993's 12 Play have meandered as much as his songs. The eternal love, coochie-calls, remixes and spoken interludes all loosely hung together. The quantity and consistency of sonic presence is required more than any traditional notion of an album.

This casual serialism allows room for tremendous variety. Along with the meandering r&b jams and gospel screamers, Kelly pulls in Ja Rule for a piano driven hymn, throws down a few Middle Eastern and Latin-tinged club bangers for couples to grind to like high-grade sandpaper, and kicks some inspired '70s-throwback soul. The latter tracks, largely holdovers from Loveland, deserve particular mention—Kelly has sussed how to ground himself in tight rhythmic bass and a solid backup chorus, refiguring them into layered and discontinuous sheets of sound. Not just Marvin Gaye, but Marvin Gaye via Eric Sermon's chop-and-block vocal science—funky fresh back-in-the-day recommended to Jill Scott, Bilal, and the rest of the neo-soul bores. But the lesson is less musical than ethical. Cornball as it is, wannabe sophistication is nearly as uplifting and far more accessible than the real thing.

 
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