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Now 20-plus years, 1 million hits, 2 million double entendres, one disturbing sex tape, one not-guilty verdict, and one giant color photo textbook, Soulacoaster, about his life into his career, there are a few things we know about R. Kelly.
In song, he has had sex on other planets ("Sex Planet"), in the jungle ("The Zoo"), and in the kitchen ("Sex in the Kitchen"). By the stove ("Sex in the Kitchen"). On the counter ("Sex in the Kitchen"). By the buttered rolls ("Sex in the Kitchen").
He wants his women in nothing but his XL white tee ("Put My T-Shirt On") or in the buff ("Naked"), two at a time ("Double Up") in 12 different positions ("12 Play").
He has compared his dick to, among other things, a remote control ("Remote Control") so powerful it can "put that ass on pause," and a key that can start a woman's engine ("Ignition"). He has compared the female anatomy to the marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal ("Lucky Charm," for the Isleys) and kush ("Sex Weed"), and in "Sweet Tooth" he coos, "I'm all up in your middle/Ooh it taste like Skittles," because he's a total fucking romantic.
With the release of Write Me Back this summer, he's 16 albums in. This week, he's releasing 20 more chapters of his outlandish, please-God-make-it-stop, please-God-don't-ever-let-it-stop hip-hopera Trapped in the Closet, which he claims will conclude after Chapter 100.
R. Kelly is a horny, hungry, funny, prolific student of anatomy.
Of his insatiable sexual appetite there is no debate. But people, over the years, have oft wondered about Kelly's knack for the comedic. Not whether it's there, which is undeniable, but whether he knows it. Does R. Kelly know he's funny?
The confusion on the subject is twofold and can be explained partly by the fact that he has never met an obvious joke he didn't greet with open arms. He makes a Uranus joke on "Sex Planet," and on the remix to Raheem DeVaughn's "Customer," he's full of sex/food analogies, none, given what we know is on that sex tape, more unappetizingly on the nose than "Shorty, if you thirsty, I got some good, good lemonade." (You know, just in case his song "Number One" didn't make you feel uncomfortable enough.) He's more Catskills hack than Louis C.K. perfection. Either way, the man knows he's writing jokes.
But Kelly's overearnestness on the flip side of his catalog doesn't help folks believe in his comedy cause, either. Many of his ballads—"I Believe I Can Fly," "I'm Your Angel"—are packed tightly with platitudes sung with a crystal clear sincerity and rocket-fuel intensity. Kelly is an entertainer and a salesman, and it's hard to believe he can be filled with the kind of genuine empathy it takes to sing a song like "U Saved Me" or "When a Woman's Fed Up" only to turn around and be the joke-cracking super freak he is on, say, most of Double Up or TP.3 Reloaded. It's hard to believe he can be a mountain, a tall tree, and a sexasaurus.
But that's what makes him great. On his last album, Love Letter, he was Sam Cooke. On his Single Ladies Tour, complete with a ladies-only VIP section, he is Marvin Gaye. On the songs in which he invokes God, he is still very much the young choir-singing boy we meet in Soulacoaster, learning to sing in service to his lord. Elsewhere, he's an r&b thug. He's a sinner, a saint, and a clown, a riddle wrapped in an enigma stuffed in a too-obvious metaphor about his cock.
R. Kelly performs at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, November 21 and Friday, November 23.