R. Kelly has always been the wrong man for pillow talk. Crass and crude, a Kelly anthem is the anti-Viagra. The man has pipes on loan from God and a gift for crafting melody. He is also, unquestionably, the most significant r&b artist of his era. But with songs like “I Like the Crotch on You,” he has drained the sexiness out of sex like no man ever before. A serenade from Chicago’s finest is the ultimate buzz-kill—a cold-shower delivered in perfect pitch and melody. Kelly’s perspective on sex always sounded like it was culled from the dirty jokes scrawled on the walls of a middle-school restroom.
So it should come as no surprise that a man with a juvenile view of sex has so often been accused of having sex with juveniles. Kelly will be facing his most damaging accusations starting June 26, when his trial for child pornography begins. According to prosecutors, Kelly videotaped himself having sex with his 14-year-old goddaughter.
Despite a much publicized airing of the video, Kelly has used the most effective tool at his disposal to revamp his image—a barrage of hits. It helps that most of those cuts are the sort of vague, toothless odes (“Heaven, I Need A Hug”) your grandmother could love. Yet no honest fan who’s given a Kelly album an honest listen can hide from one essential fact: In matters of love and sex, Kelly never got out of the ninth grade.
For the record, all men have an R. Kelly in them. No matter how noble and nice, we’ve all caught ourselves peeking over the line, admiring a body beyond its years, and murmuring about the perks of the 19th century. So when Kelly confesses, “My mind is telling me ‘no,’ but my body is telling me ‘yes,'” he is peering into all of our souls. Among the healthy male populace, moments like these last about 30 seconds. Then we recoil, straighten up, and return from our lower selves.
But Kelly, as an artist at least, lives in his lower self. There was never anything seductive or suggestive about an R. Kelly jam—when a cut is titled “Feelin’ On Yo Bootie,” “Like a Real Freak,” or “The Best Sex Ever,” the guesswork is eliminated. Kelly’s many hits were based not just on a penchant for melody, but on an unrivaled ability to reduce sex and love to its basest and most graphic terms. For Kelly, sex is only interesting when stripped of all inference, allusion, or double entendre. To leave anything to the imagination would be to leave something behind.
When Kelly does attempt to be poetic, somehow he ends up sounding like a naughty schoolboy. Take his monster hit “You Remind Me of Something,” in which he struggles for a metaphor to describe his lover. His efforts fall slightly short of Shakespeare. “You remind me of my jeep, I wanna ride it/Something like my sound, I wanna pump it/Girl, you look just like my cars, I wanna wax it/And something like my bank account, I wanna spend it, baby.” Shall I compare thee to an SUV? Thou art more fuel-efficient and, um, roomier.
At least “You Remind Me” was an attempt at a nontraditional metaphor. The title cut from Kelly’s breakout album 12 Play, is reminiscent of the sort of dirty nursery rhymes exchanged by third graders: “8, Feel me, I’m so hard/ 9, See I want you from behind, with that bump and grind/10, Baby climb on top of me/11, Up and down we’ll go, you’ll see.” Those sorts of sweet nothings may not conjure memories of Cyrano de Bergerac, but they certainly get the 12-year-olds giggling—they don’t call it “12 Play” for nothing.
Many of Kelly’s fans turned their backs when he was accused of wooing children, but some of Kelly’s best material sounds engineered to do precisely that. The chorus for “It Seems Like You’re Ready” always reminded me of some high school senior trying to con a freshman into going past first base. “It seems like you’re ready (seems like you’re ready)/Girl, are you ready, to go all the way?”
It is Kelly’s juvenile taste, his preference for the pornographic over the erotic, that marks the dividing line between him and his forebears. As a kid, I was never sure what “Footsteps In the Dark” or “Voyage to Atlantis” meant. But my three-year-old son could get the gist of “12 Play.” Furthermore, while you could always count on Curtis Mayfield, Jeffrey Osborne, or even Al B. Sure to lend you a hand in your efforts at seduction, Kelly’s hand—even pre-child porn charges—always seemed to be wielding a camcorder. You just can’t escape the feeling that Kelly’s watching you, which might not be so bad, if he weren’t offering color commentary too.
But Kelly can’t even let the generational line stand—even his elders must be reduced to schoolkids. When not penning prom-night monologues, Kelly has done some impressive work with Ronald Isley, transforming the balladeer from a lion in winter into a relevant hit-maker. Isley, of course, has had to pay a price. His lyrics have been dumbed down to Kelly’s level and he’s had to stomach his new role as poster boy for the cuckolded gangster. From “Down Low” to “Contagious” to “Showdown,” Kelly has crafted a melodramatic musical epic using Isley’s mate as the thread. The Isley/Kelly marriage is a natural musically, but the resulting content has been vintage R. Kelly—which is to say audio porn.
How can a guy with such a puerile view of love and sex become the bard of his generation? Well, it helps that Kelly isn’t the only one dumbing us down and fixing on the lowest common denominator. The Farrelly Brothers, ODB, Paris Hilton, and John Ashcroft have all made their contributions in the war against privacy. Inference is dead. Speak to us like 10-year-olds, or we will not understand. This is a world that R. Kelly was made to serenade, one perfectly designed for his callow approach to the lyrical.
Of course, that leaves us old fogies and hopeless romantics out of the loop. I like to think that I’m a freak. But a cantillating R. Kelly consistently leaves me determined to redouble my efforts at Bible study, even his recent innocuous incarnation would sully the listener. “Step In the Name of Love” is masterful bit of whitewashing, but makes me itch—and not in a good way. I know which way Kelly is stepping. I’m doing my best to walk the other way.