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What's So Funny About A Little Bump N' Grind? R. Kelly, Frank Ocean, And The "Right" Kind Of R&B

R. Kelly.
R. Kelly.

In case you haven't yet gotten your fill, over the past couple of years, of artists beating Aaliyah samples into a flavorless pulp, not to worry—Yeasayer frontman Chris Keating has got your back. In a Rolling Stone interview published this week, Keating recalls being struck by watching high school classmates dancing to "Are You That Somebody," despite not being into "mainstream music" at the time; he then cites Aaliyah as a major influence on Yeasayer's new record, Fragrant World. Who am I to say—perhaps Aaliyah and the Supafriends truly did resonate with Keating all these years, although it did take until his band's third album for this influence to supposedly manifest itself. Or perhaps, what with a certain Canadian rapper engaging in obsessive melodic fan-fiction, Aaliyah's name is just on peoples' lips at the moment. Or perhaps Keating and his bandmates got the memo that, hey, R&B isn't totally embarrassing anymore—or at least, a specific type of it.

Which brings us to Frank Ocean. Apparently Yeasayer and Ocean were both at the Wythe Hotel on the day of the interview, which led to a receptionist mixup, which led to Keating being asked his thoughts on Ocean. His reply: "I think he is a good new face for the R&B world right now, to kind of usher out—no pun intended—some of these folks. Because, let's get real, R. Kelly is a terrible person. I like R. Kelly and how crazy he is, but he's a terrible piece of shit, a horrible person, really bad all around. Let's get rid of him. Let's gay it up a little [in R&B]." It seems that in between his initial Aaliyah encounter (which would have been just after the release of One in a Million) and his band's music being influenced by her, Keating neglected to Google and find out that Kelly wrote and produced the vast majority of her debut Age Ain't Nothing but a Number.

Ironic? Sure. But that's not really what troubles me about Keating's sweeping dismissal of Kelly and his calls for the trendy new wonderboy of R&B to replace him and his ilk. (I mean this in no way as a criticism of Ocean; I adore his music, although he is far more suited for Pitchfork crossover appeal than, say, Trey Songz.) It's not even necessarily his damnation of Kelly as a person, which is perfectly reasonable. I'm a believer in separating the artist from their work (a large percentage of my favorite artists have personas that range from douchey to megalomaniacal), but I recognize that to many, this feels sketchy or tasteless. Fortunately for me, Chris Brown's recent music tends to be just as vile as his character, and I respect anyone who feels uncomfortable distancing Kelly's work from his unsavory past. What's troublesome to me is Keating's claim to enjoy how awesomely "crazy" Kelly is, which comes after immediately he's been deemed a complete piece of shit with no place in the current R&B climate. And it's especially problematic in the middle of an interview in which Keating repeatedly demonstrates a bias against music that doesn't quite measure up to his own arbitrary and imperialist value system.

The response to Kelly's Trapped in the Closet series perfectly demonstrates this patronizing assessment of the artist as a wholly ridiculous "zany black man," lovably clueless as to just how hilarious his work really is. Trapped in the Closet is a blatantly over-the-top and humorous project, just as much of Kelly's most popular and entertaining songs have been ("Real Talk," "The Zoo," "Same Girl," "Sex Planet"). He's been unabashedly audacious for most of his career, though there's certainly more to his catalogue than just silly, catchy metaphors for his horniness—he's a master of narrative, which is why his songs actually work. Why then, when it's so obvious that Kelly is acutely aware and eager to deliver more of what people attach to in his music, is he continuously treated as the butt of his own unintentional joke, a sexed-up idiot savant that tragicomically stumbles into three Grammys? Kelefa Sanneh, in a 2007 New York Times review of Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 13-22, noted the unsettling amount of hysterical attention bestowed upon the DVD: "Many of its biggest fans seem to think they're laughing at Mr. Kelly, not with him, as if the whole thing were some sort of glorious, terrible mistake; as if the far-fetched plot turns... were the work of someone who set out to make a traditional musical and failed."

 

Keating's love of Kelly's "craziness," despite his rejection of Kelly as a worthwhile artist and human, smacks of this sort of bemused condescension, and while I'm not suggesting that such a patronizing attitude is necessarily racist, it's hard to ignore the implications here, particularly considering Keating's "humorous" anecdote in the same interview about meeting Jay-Z and Beyoncé at a Ra Ra Riot show. Recall the same registration of surprise and amusement when the couple were spotted in 2009 at a Grizzly Bear show, as if the thought of a rapper and an R&B singer having musical tastes broader than simply their own respective genres was a revelation. Gwyneth Paltrow's recently confessed love of Chief Keef and Juicy J songs was met with similar incredulity.

This sort of crude, reductive, genre-based pigeonholing of the "other" by the likes of Keating furthers the popular view of R&B and rap music as a "guilty pleasure." "Bump N Grind" can be fun, sure, but it's a fleeting, shallow, tongue-in-cheek pleasure, or a combination of nostalgia and mockery resulting in an "awesomely bad" appreciation—guys, guys... remember the '90s?!—at least in comparison to Music To Be Taken Seriously with Real Instruments and Meaningful Lyrics. Sure enough, Keating dismisses dance music just as assuredly as he does traditional R&B: "The EDM world has always been the place that's forward-thinking with sonic texture and production, but in terms of content, they're down at the bottom of the barrel... in terms of song-making and wanting to convey something a bit deeper than just dancing all night, we're trying to merge those two worlds [dance and rock]." Values based on rock standards are used against other genres, within which these touchstones of rock'n'roll authenticity are often irrelevant; as Sanneh wrote in 2004's "The Rap Against Rockism," "[r]ockism is imperial: it claims the entire musical world as its own." Poetic lyrical flourishes are far more important in the context of a Yeasayer or TV on the Radio song than in a Skrillex or Jeremih song, yet Keating sees this as a lack of depth, potentially creating something ephemerally enjoyable but in no way "classic" or "meaningful." I mean, does Skrillex have any songs with the theme of "everyone's impending death and the lingering misery of growing old and toiling away in a nursing home for years and years, watching all your friends die," as Keating described the closing track on Fragrant World?

And so, having decreed in broad, sweeping statements the relative worthlessness of traditional R&B legends and electronic dance music (not to mention glibly boiling down Frank Ocean's importance to his sexuality), Keating wraps up the interview expressing his relief that his band can't be lumped into "some easily-defined genre, like chillwave," distancing Yeasayer from all those "arbitrary, bloggy" lesser buzzbands. He's a heterosexual man telling R&B to be "gayer"; a rock musician damning traditional R&B and dance music for its supposed lack of depth; a rejector of the mainstream awarding value to radio hits for sounding unlike the mainstream; a white man confident in his presumptions of what black people would gravitate towards. One can only guess that Keating will soothe the sting from Pitchfork's unfavorable review of Fragrant World ("[it] not only proves that Yeasayer can make an unremarkable song, but that they can make 11 of them in a row") by assuring himself that the record is simply too deep to be appreciated by the same plebeians who awarded Kelly's Write Me Back a notably higher score.

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