By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
I never agreed that State of Illinois v. Robert Kelly doubled as a sexed-up press release, that his dalliance with the JV water-sports squad tugged critical ears Kells-ward. Chocolate Factory ingratiated itself so relentlessly because, uh doy, it was relentlessly ingratiating. With a consistency he'd never mustered and an effortlessness he'll never match, Kelly dared you to dislike him, to draw the distinction between seduction and con. Then he started showing off. Yes, the self-serving U Saved Me demoted God to celestial bellhop, always happy to oblige with a cancer cure or a full scholarship when you buzz room service. Uh-huh, the extended stepper's set Happy People was ignorant bliss. Yet not since Tony! Toni! Tone! was a going concern had such a wide range of geniusesStevie and Sam, Marvin and Ronaldbeen mimicked so accurately and effectively.
Dude loves a challenge. Always has, in fact: Early on, with a string of honeys throbbing to his melisma, Kelly started whispering nasty shit in his boys' ears. Player cred duly accrued, he then sweet-talked fans of Bugs Bunny and Celine Dion. But having proven he could seduce either sex, flip from O.G. to G-rated without a blink, and hornswoggle the court of public opinion, Kelly faces his first insurmountable trial: inertia. Bedding down with Jay-Z was a stroke, but shit, if Kelly is as thrilled as he acts about throwing a private party with The Game on "Playa's Only," he deserves no better than the leftover beats Scott Storch tosses him.
And only a true beat-whore could groove along complacently to TP.3. On his post-scandal triumphs, Kelly owned the elegant, frictionless bottom he skated along on. Now, when not falling back on the faucet-drip slow jam, he's content to rely on someone else's sense of rhythm. His feel for the fizzled reggaeton of "Burn It Up" is even shallower than Prince's affinity for hip-hop, and the sexless bounce 'n' hop of "Reggae Bump Bump," with Elephant Man muppeting along, makes Willie Nelson sound like Beenie Man.
Even Kelly's willingness to giggle in the sack, once one of his sexier traits, now distracts from the main event. "Remote Control" is a silly and alluring falsetto workout, its sneaky double-time lick surprising with each tickle from behind, but "Sex Weed" is the desperately bloated metaphor of a guy who goes limp at the very thought of fucking the same way twice. And novelty isn't the only fetish here: clothes ("Put My T-Shirt On"just how buff is this woman, if his "triple X" looks "so damn tight"?), location ("Sex in the Kitchen," where promising foreplay dribbles into the flaccid climax "Girl I'm ready to toss your salad!"), even ethnicity ("Let's get together and mix cultures," he whines to the Jamaican gal from "Slow Wind"). Someone shove a clit between this guy's lips and shut him up already.
Which leaves the sudsy fun of "Trapped in the Closet," a gonzo showcase for his precision phrasing, self-consciously sloppy plotting, and hyper-emotive swoop that, alongside U Saved Me's "3-Way Phone Call," proves Kelly was born to write, direct, and star in gospel melodramas on the Orpheum circuit. The moral: Everybody's sleeping around, so judge not lest your husband be diddling some dude on the down-low. And if you doubt the lengths Kelly is willing to go to remain an underdog, note that the narrator, who wakes with no memory of the night before, is the least culpable of these cheaters. By chapter nine, maybe we'll learn he was zonked by roofies, set up by the Chicago PD, or brainwashed by Venutians.