By Zach Baron
Amazing how much it explains, R. Kelly’s embrace of this credo in the years since the video that led Christgau to coin it. The infamous studio session photos of Kells paying piano tribute to the victims of the V-Tech murders while sporting a t-shirt decorated with a photo of himself in happier times; the Live! The Light It Up Tour spectacle of a shirt-cannon-slinging roadie blasting his masters’ likeness into club corners; the portrait of the artist on the wall of his own bedroom in the video for “Trapped in the Closet: Chapter Five”; the way in which Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 13-22 doubles the cast of characters while adding only half the actors. Let Kells play ‘em all, right?
Ditto for the “Pied-Piper of R&B” routine, “The Champ,” “Heaven I Need a Hug,” and all the other tracks that address the adversity (and outlaw joy) of being a guy who stands accused of urinating, on film, above the head of a thirteen-year-old girl. His mea culpa is straightforward — when you’re as ubiquitous as he is, as sexually serviced and famous as he is, wouldn’t you too eventually end up setting up a camera and ejaculating on a minor for posterity? His lawyer will obviously beg to differ come September 17th, but in the pop-music court outside the courtroom, R. Kelly’s been making this case for years: even R. Kelly, in other words, has been a victim of R. Kelly’s fame. He maintains his innocence, but it’s his narcissism that’s his ultimate bid for empathy.
That I don’t exactly believe this excuse hasn’t prevented me from absorbing the man’s subjectivity to the point that “The Zoo” is my swear-to-god pick for this year’s most arousing song. His shameless solipsism has grown to a proportion so large that I do feel his pain — because he’s made the pain and perversion in his life exactly synonymous with his art. And the art is great.
Here is a great place to note that Double Up is easily one of the brightest spots of the last six months for me. Even now, when its been picked apart — lovingly, mostly — diagrammed, etc, still nobody’s mentioned the astronomic bounce of “Get Dirty,” say, or “Rollin’”, let alone acknowledged how sympathetic (and educational!) a song like “Havin’ a Baby” is, to the point where somebody in the same spot could conceivably adopt it as a kind of abbreviated clinic.
Course, the matter of hand is Trapped in the Closet: Chapters 13-22, which just wrapped up its premiere at the IFC website this week, about a month before he faces his fourteen counts in Chicago, and a couple weeks after “Same Girl” finally dropped off of HOT97’s hourly rotation. The New York Times, and others, are right to point out the queasy undercurrent of racism, the pervasive misunderstanding that dogs R. Kelly (to the degree, possibly, that Kelefa Sanneh’s own headline writer may have entirely missed his evident point). And the second batch of episodes are still good, if not as functional as genuine mini-dramas — the suspense has been leached out, as has the terror, as has the previously pitch-perfect melodies that quietly carried the whole thing.
As someone who hates pedophilia, and enjoys consensual sex and the music of R. Kelly, I have no desire to render verdicts before a court does. But there is the stubborn fact — you feel most during the IFC couch segments, maybe, as he’s doing the characters a few feet away from Matt Singer — of the life collapsing into the music (try enjoying “The Champ” another way). As he becomes “R. Kelly as Mr. Show Biz” show biz becomes a little bit more vice versa too.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 23, 2007