R. Kelly’s letting you know straight off the bat that he wants a lot for your money. The opening flap of his new double CD reads partially like mandate, partially like prayer. See this man, he implores. Know this man. Touch this man. Embrace this man. Pay this man. Believe this man. Trust this man. Love this man. Pray for this man. The fourth time around Kelly wants something deeper than mere props. He wants our hearts—open, trusting, and vulnerable. Ironically, he wants what seems to be the most difficult thing for the Perpetually Sunglassed One to give.
Now, don’t get it twisted. R. Kelly gives a lot. When he isn’t lacing his own multiplatinum joints with poignantly soul-filled vocals, ridiculously infectious arrangements, and masterful production, he’s lending his way-past-Midas touch to everyone from newcomers Aaliyah, Changing Faces, Kelly Price, and Sparkle to veterans, among them the siblings Jackson (Michael and Janet), Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, and the Isley Brothers.
The man shits hits, no question. But ever since his first solo album, the ultrasalacious 12 Play, it’s been clear that what Kelly is most masterful at is giving the people what he thinks we want. Sex sells, he figured, and it did—2.8 million times. The freaky-deaky included the megahits “Bump ‘N Grind,” “Sex Me,” and “Your Body’s Callin’,’ along with some decidedly low points (“I Like the Crotch on You,” for one). For those of us savvy and patient enough to know that men who spend that much time talking about getting their freak on are usually hiding something, Kelly covered “Sadie.” A passionate and moving tribute to his departed mother, it gave us a glimpse of the sensitivity and depth that were yet to come.
His third album, the four-times-platinum R. Kelly, is when Kelly really delivered. Determined to prove a thing or two to the naysayers who thought bumpin’ and grindin’ alone
couldn’t possibly keep him in the game, Kelly relied less on gimmick than on his admirable and evolving command of soul, blues, r&b, and gospel traditions. Less desperate than 12 Play, R. Kelly was solid, cohesive, and seductively confident. Not only could he talk about sex, he could talk about love and the complexity of relationships—and he could do it in big ol’ cinematic ways (the high drama of “Down Low [Nobody Has To Know]”) or get stupid to make you laugh at yourself (the lyrical silliness of “You Remind Me”). And by adding laid-back dance tracks, hip-hop–based collaborations, and gospelesque testifying, Kelly proved he could deliver a li’l sumptin, sumptin to everybody.
Hints of his growing spirituality came to full maturity in the now anthemic “I Believe I Can Fly,” his hit from the Space Jam soundtrack. Not only did it earn him three Grammies and crossover success, he now had the respect of church folks, teachers, and grandmothers everywhere. Kelly was still the King of Bumpin’, but he was also that guy in “Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby, Baby…” The one you could take “to church on Sunday morning.”
The something-for-everybody strategy is very much in effect for R., which debuts with three remarkably diverse singles. For the bullshit-and-party crowd there’s “Home Alone,” an uptempo dance track with hip-hop inflections featuring rapper Keith Murray. For those who jumped on the “I Believe I Can Fly” band-
wagon and prefer their Kelly clean, “I Am Your Angel” (a duet with Celine Dion) serves plenty of G-rated pop gospel inspiration. And for die-hard Kellyheads, those of us who rely on the brother’s ballads to soundtrack at least an hour or two of getting your groove on, there’s the ghetto-romantic “Half on a Baby.” The CD shipped 3 million copies.
Is it any good? Well, if good is all about Kelly’s ability to give an increasingly heterogeneous fan base what he thinks they want, then yeah, it’s good as hell. Rap fans will be glad to know that while his forays into hip-hop have never quite matched his adeptness in other genres, his skills are steadily improving. Produced by G-One (until this album, Kelly wrote, produced, and arranged solo), “Home Alone”‘s rather banal and repetitive track is one of the weakest hip-hop/r&b marriages on the album. His production collaborations with Tone and Poke and Corey Rooney from Track Masters, however, sired the infectious thug grooves of “We Ride,” featuring Cam’Ron, Noreaga, Jay-Z, and Vegas Cats, and the equally funky “Did You Ever Think” and “Money Makes the World Go Round,” featuring Nas.
Still, the extent of the collaborations muddies Kelly’s strong musical identity instead of making a good thing better, doubly unfortunate since one of Kelly’s strengths as a producer is his ability to bring out the best in an artist without superimposing. His guest producers (Al West, Puffy, Ron Lawrence, Stevie J) often lack that finesse: while the Bad Boy contribution “Spendin’ Money” is danceable enough, you half expect Kelly to step out in Mase’s red sequins, and who really wants to see that?
What remains signature Kelly are his ballads, cuts like “Half on a Baby,” “Get Up on a Room,” “Etcetera,” and “One Man”—sticky sweet grooves that promise lovemaking everywhere from the kitchen counter to the pool, replete with a post-lovin’ trip to IHOP. “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time,” “Suicide,” and “When a Woman’s Fed Up” play with the spirits of the Temptations, Chi-Lites, and Righteous Brothers. Steeped deep in pure soul and doowop, Kelly serves up heartbreak like somebody’s wayward daddy, coming back begging with hat in hand.
There are even a few precious, totally unselfconscious moments on R. when Kelly doesn’t appear to be thinking about what we want at all and just lets loose. In a goose-pimple–
inspiring a cappella, Kelly details his personal blues on “What I Feel/Issues,” allowing us glimpses into his frustrations with fame and jealousy, the pain of fatherlessness, and his sensitivity to constant criticism without all of hip-hop’s fake don’t hate me cuz I’m Famous, Rich, and Beautiful bravado. And although Kelly denies he’s married with a kid (so who’s the cute baby that looks a helluva lot like him in the “I Am Your Angel” video?), “Reality”—a sensitive song that tackles the complexities of combining relationships and parenting—sure seems to have been inspired by something.
What’s a little sad is that more of the above might have been all it took to turn a good double CD into a great one. Despite Kelly’s enormous talent, prolificity alone does not greatness make. R. has some pretty impressive moments but it will always pale when compared with black music’s best double albums. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life or Prince’s Sign ‘o’ the Times forged intimate, soul to soul connections between artist and listener. For two hours and change they gave it all up, and as a result we did too. With these 29 tracks, Kelly proves once again that he can write hits ’til the cows come home, but ultimately we are no clearer about who R. Kelly really is than before. All we have is the muddle of warring identities presented in his latest videos.
Still, I have a lot of faith in Kelly. I think the best is still ahead. We’ll get it the day he comes to us the way he wants us to come to him—open, trusting, vulnerable, and real. It’s simply a reciprocity thang.