Kelly was doing fine. Great, even. He was a healing arts practitioner, trained in reiki, massage and cupping. He was diligent about curbing his ego. He was married to the woman he started dating at 21; they had two children together. He was a respected member of the Denver hip-hop community, friends and collaborators with fellow artists and entrepreneurs Mike Wird, Musa Bailey and Ill Se7en. He taught at Youth on Record.
“I was raising kids, I was doing the right thing and feeling good about myself. I was feeling like life was pretty complete,” he says. And then, after he and his wife had spent 24 years together — 21 of them married — she left him for another woman. She told him she had been crushing on someone else. By the time she left to spend a week in New York, he knew it was over.
“I was left with the kids and the house, knowing my ex is leaving me and just devastated,” he remembers. So Kelly went to the studio. He was angry and hurt and, by his own account, “hella bitter.”
“Where I come from, on my mom’s side, is part Sicilian, part Mexican. And that’s very saucy. We’re very saucy people. We can talk shit really good,” he says. So he did exactly that into a microphone. He played the tracks for his friends — “They were laughing, we had a good time with it,” he recalls — and decided to debut a finished version at Cervantes'.
Maybe it was God, the universe, the cosmos coming to his intercession. Regardless, it was out of his hands when Kelly missed the better chunk of his set because he was sorting out some ticket business at the box office, not realizing he was supposed to be on stage. When he returned to the green room, staff told him he had five minutes to play. He scrapped the set list altogether and spent the time making live beats using the pocket operators — essentially a calculator-sized drum machine, sampler and synthesizer — he wears on the cover of Choose Love.
“Then the guy was like, ‘Okay, you can have five more minutes,’ because, you know, I was rocking the crowd,” he says with a laugh.
But the glitch in an otherwise smooth matrix was proof enough for Kelly that a big breakup kiss-off album was not the way forward. Nor did he love the optics of appearing bitter and spiteful in front of a community that had known him as one-half of an established couple for so long.
“I take serendipity and things like that into account when I’m questioning things. So that, for me, was like, wow. It didn’t seem like anything I could really control,” he says.
Back in the studio, Kelly shifted focus. He read up on chakra frequencies. Then he wrote the refrain for “Stay Free,” weaving the tones into the words themselves. It’s even in the song title: ay and ee sounds coincide with the third eye and crown chakras, respectively. When Zion I invited him on stage at Cervantes', he decided to road-test the chant from the song: “You gotta trust, do, show, because the life stay free, free, free.”
“It was interesting, because someone came up to me and was like, ‘Man, when you did that, I felt this crazy energy,’” he says. “I didn’t tell him, but it reassured and confirmed to me that this is my path, the merging of the healing with the music.”
Kelly follows that line of thinking all the way through Choose Love, his new record about life after bitterness. He cites Bruce Lee’s writing on enlightenment as an inspiration. After spending two years incessantly working and reworking 2017’s Innerstate Interstellar, he decided to make all the beats using his pocket operators and without overthinking it. Consciousness-minded acts like Digable Planets and De La Soul are obvious touchstones here — he paused the Fugees to take this interview — and the finished product doesn’t stray from the conscious rap Kelly is known for, however tenuous that term may sound in 2019.
“Call it underground, call it alternative rap or whatever, but I’m not trying to be on some corny shit,” he clarifies.
Granted, this isn’t Kelly’s first redemption arc. He moved from his home town of Little Rock, Arkansas, to Boulder at eighteen. Three months later, in April 1993, his older brother Paul was assaulted on University Hill, resulting in major brain damage that prompted doctors to medically induce a coma. (Westword covered the incident extensively.) Kelly decided to retaliate — “My stupid, eighteen-year-old ego was like, ‘I’m going to fucking kill them’” — and met up with a local weed dealer he knew who owned a gun. On the way to check out the gun, he ran into members of the hip-hop crew Raah Foundashun.
“I didn’t tell them what I was going to do, but we got deep. It was a spiritual moment. They were like, ‘We should do a benefit show for your brother.’ That redirected my whole shit,” he says. “I thank God for that every day.”
As for the universe’s sick sense of humor? Kelly remains happily open to it. His marriage is over, but the songs that put a spotlight on his bitterness are quietly collecting dust. And despite it all, he hasn’t lost faith in the grand, baffling design.
“This is the universe looking at me like, 'You still have more shit to learn,'" he says. "It’s true. It is a blessing. It has opened me up to new people, new experiences. And career-wise, I feel like this is one of the better records I’ve made in a while.”
Babah Fly plays at 8 p.m. Friday, August 16, at Gypsy House, 1545 South Broadway. Tickets are $10 to $12.