Serenading the Boys


R. Kelly don’t see nothing wrong—but then again, it’s pretty much all his fault in the first place. Him and those Jodeci boys, decked out in matching flame-retardant overalls. At the turn of the last decade, they were the ones thrusting hips into hip-hop, shifting attention from whose dick was bigger to who could use it better. Soon enough, pretty-boy crooners were rocking do-rags and ice, thugging it up like wannabe rappers in search of a rhyme book.

Teddy Riley may have seen it first, but Guy were too pretty, more swing than new jack. Keith Sweat was too . . . sweaty. Luther Vandross’s eyelashes were too long, and he’d sooner go Peabo Bryson than lay down thug hooks. There was always New Edition and its profligate spin-offs—O.G. Bobby Brown, the angular, soul-glowing Johnny Gill, freak nasties Bell Biv DeVoe, and last-man-picked Ralph Tresvant—but none of them could shake those sticky candy girls. It sped right past Brian McKnight, who was tripping out at the Neil Diamond concert. Pretenders like Case and Montell Jordan took their swipes, but learned that it took more than a football jersey and a Def Jam contract to move the streets.

So what does it mean to be a rapper’s singer, one as likely to serenade his boys (strictly platonically, of course) as his ladyfriend? It’s conflicted ground, straddling worlds that demand authority and surrender, misogyny and tenderness, trust and deceit. Once hip-hop had created new, seemingly immutable masculine forms, r&b spiraled into identity crisis. What was once a genre of dignity and stature got relegated to the suburbs—less real, more frill. There was no room for a Gaye, a Cooke, a Pendergrass, a Mayfield, a Hathaway—men who were, well, men. Up against hip-hop’s increasingly gritty tales, r&b’s potential for empowerment withered away, retreating into its in-house massage parlor.

Thus, in a time generally hostile to lilting gangsterism in hip-hop, R. Kelly was damn near a category-killer. He entered the fray with, in relatively quick succession, the frictive “Bump N’ Grind,” the syrupy “Honey Love,” the none-too-subtle “Sex Me,” and the paean to deflowering “It Seems Like You’re Ready” (and this overlooking gems like “Definition of a Hotti” and “I Like the Crotch on You”). Within a span of two years, Kelly established himself as the player to hate, the one who took the hotties home from the hip-hop spot because he spat his game with dulcet edge.

But the hands of time have treated Kelly a bit rough—his failed affair with female protégé Aaliyah is the stuff of dysfunctional legend, and the passing of his mother four years back has by all accounts made the reclusive R. even more enigmatic. Drawing upon this range of pain, his 1998 album, simply titled R., was his most ambitious. “Did You Ever Think” shows the player in repose, wondering whether success cures; “When a Woman’s Fed Up” is a gender-battle answer record so thorough only the man who fed her up in the first place could write it; “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time” became an instant standard, stripped bare to showcase the clarity of Kelly’s voice.

And what a voice it is. Kelly’s hypersexuality has always been easier to swallow because of his stunning vocal quality. No wanton arpeggios here. Strictly clarion calls from below the belt. Even his high school vocal teacher, a churchgoing woman, doesn’t mind his content so long as he’s working those chops. That said, is a magnum opus of the genre, milking both Kelly’s recent reflection and his baser inclinations for all they’re worth.

But Kelly is a narcissist at heart, and while his insight into the fairer sex is often profound, it’s really all about him. “Open your eyes,” he commands on the album intro. “Surprise, you’ve entered 12 Play 2.” It’s like the woman in question has been sentenced to an 80-minute term in a bizarre sexual theme park with the gluteo-obsessive Kelly as tour guide. “Strip for You” may pretend to be a gendered bender, but it’s really just an excuse for his “trench coat [to] hit the floor.” On “Feelin’ on Yo Booty,” Kelly proclaims, “This is my song for real, no doubt.”

Would that it were so simple. Unlike his earliest work, where his eroticism was so extreme as to be benign, here his pathological self-involvement leaps from the physical realm to the ever more manipulable spaces of the psyche. The menacingly titled “Don’t You Say No” expounds upon the transactive nature of intimacy: “I been doing all these things for you/ Now what you gonna do for me?/I ain’t trying to spend no cash/If you ain’t spending that ass.” As his partner remains hopelessly trapped, he does even more damage to her spirit. On “I Don’t Mean It,” he attempts an apologia, but only ends up tightening the vise: “Sometimes I know that I can take it just a little bit too far/But yo, my heart is good/So baby, you don’t have to worry/You’re gonna see a change.”

But just as easily as he brings pain, he feels it. He seems genuinely shocked at his own shortcomings—”Even though I’ve lied, you still trust me somehow”—and dwells on them more thoroughly than any of his crooning, or rapping, peers. “A Woman’s Threat” seems to be aimed right back at himself—Kelly is by far the genre’s most self-loathing player. He sobs his way through “I Wish,” both the original about his lost mother and the reprise about his dead homie, and by album’s end, the thrilling “The Storm Is Over Now,” R. Kelly is redeemed—penitent, cleansed of sin, and riding the Kirk Franklin Express to a brighter tomorrow.

Seems like all the ballers have gone to reform school. Jodeci, who’d always seemed like R. Kelly’s partners in licentiousness, dissolved after 1995’s The Show the After Party the Hotel, which felt like nothing short of an invitation to STDs. DeVante Swing faded into the tapestry, and Mr. Dalvin was re(still)born in cyber-chaps. But K-Ci and JoJo, the group’s two most potent voices, teamed up for their own concept project to cultivate the perfect last-dance song for prom nights nationwide.

Well, not quite, but donning tuxedos and silk scarves, and blessed with a gift for catchy hooks and pleasing harmony, the two have largely abandoned their former hedonism for the rarefied air of urban crossover. K-Ci’s malleable voice is deeply suggestive, and JoJo provides a bedrock of syrup. Together, they’ve been responsible for one king-size ballad on each of their two previous albums: “All My Life” and “Tell Me It’s Real.”

On X, it’s “Crazy” that fills the manufactured-passion, girl-you-sure-are-swell quota. Riding a vocoded chorus that makes the boys sound even more clinical than usual, its quantized quality renders the duo almost aharmonic. Yet its overprocessing is also the key to its success, infecting the song with a sort of redeeming machine soul. Fortunately, the technological interference isn’t always needed. “I Can’t Find the Words” allows K-Ci to explore his Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke complexes, wailing over a subtle three-part harmony: “Like a flower growing by the spring in the middle of the desert/You’re myyyyy [he gets wide here] oasis when I’m tired and thirsty/Yes you are/You fill me up till I get enough/You’re like the dewdrops on my face.”

K-Ci and JoJo together aren’t half the songwriter R. Kelly is, and most of their album slides into anodyne anonymity, exactly the type of ballads folks like Joe try to pass off as deep thought. Of the new school of thinking singers, Carl Thomas has come closest to complexity, but (though his fur coat is nice) he still can’t hold a candle to Kelly’s pain. Jail-suit harmonizers Next and Jagged Edge seem sincere too, but as composers, they’re still bobbing for hackneyed hooks.

So it should come as no surprise that the sellingest r&b come-ons this season come not from the soul, but from the whitewashed acolytes in its hole. On Black & Blue, which has moved almost 5 million copies to date, the Backstreet Boys bite ‘N Sync biting Boyz II Men, who now stand next to Full Force as it-ain’t-our-fault cultivators of the new four-part, one-outfit pop. Sure, Boyz aren’t behind the curtain penning teen-pop standards (yet), but their cardigan soul gave new life to the desexed harmonies of doo-wop, and unwittingly laid a road map for this generation of Clean South crooners with no need of parental advisory stickers.

You can blame them by name. Nathan Michael Shawn Wanya, Boyz II Men’s latest, is their first in three years and comes some six years after their last notes of relevance. While r&b slept with hip-hop, found its groove, and decided to get its fuck on, the Boyz stood by, bewildered. Their last album, Evolution, nodded to the hot-swapping going on all around them, but all the Boyz did was prove they had eight left feet, tripping all over themselves any time they approached dancefloor temperature.

Accordingly, you’d think they’d have abandoned the club for this (second) comeback. But with this album, they’ve brought the pain full circle, mercilessly ripping off the boy bands who’ve made the Boyz’ model their bread (winner) and butta (love). The results are frightful, a collection of songs only a drunk uncle could groove to. “Beautiful Women” is so laden with fatuous conceit—”If there could only be three more of me/Then I could keep all these beautiful women”—that it defies reason. “Bounce, Shake, Move, Swing” opens with techno pulsations and expands into an adult-contemporary strip-club jam, like they were too scared to go to Black Gold and ended up at the seniors’ lounge down the road watching MTV Jams.

That they tried and failed to mesh lust with trust is understandable. The Boyz would never be caught facing allegations of sex with underage girls like R. Kelly, or be caught with their willies out like K-Ci on an L.A. stage last month. They’ve always thought themselves too dignified for the hot hustle—as Wanya told Vibe recently, “We have a different way of expressing our sexuality. . . . Someone says ‘thong.’ We say ‘lingerie.’ ” Though their ambitions are no less predatory, Boyz II Men are too scared to ask directly for pussy: “Let me dive into your ocean so I can find your precious pearls.” C’mon, fellas, enough with the abstract, pretty phrasing. Let your feelings show! And if you’re penning purity jams, then dammit be pure. Even saucy R. Kelly knows when to turn off the love pulse. R&b gets no more innocuous than his Celine Dion (!) duet “I’m Your Angel,” his track for Michael Jackson, “You Are Not Alone,” or his own goopy “I Believe I Can Fly.” Just as his potential for the profane is vast, so is his capacity for good; one wouldn’t exist without the other. As R. Kelly’s known for years, the beauty’s how you grind them.