I've desired to interview R. Kelly for most of my adult writing life -- but as the case with many artists I respect and deeply admire -- I've been afraid to. Even if Kells was as accessible as a phone call or a coffee date, I don't know if I could actually go through with it.
Being star struck and being a music journalist presents a problem for me, and I've been rendered speechless at the most inopportune moments, times when I have been face to face an idol. (This actually happened once, but it involved Rob Zabrecky from Possum Dixon, a long story for another time.)
Will Oldham, better known as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, sat down with Robert Sylvester Kelly recently for Interview magazine, and asked so many of the questions I myself have wanted to ask for the last decade and a half. Moreover, it inspired me come out and explain why -- as a music lover and a woman -- I have an undying admiration for R. Kelly's work.
First, I want to put my views on Kelly's questionable behavior out on the table. Oldham smartly addressed the darkest time in R. Kelly's career -- the 2002 sex tape and subsequent child pornography charges, all of which he was acquitted -- right away in his piece. For me, there is no way, when evaluating an art form like modern music, to bring personal issues into the equation. It would be impossible to be subjective when looking at or listening to someone's art, especially when his or her personal troubles are so overwhelmingly present.
Since the dawn of modern music, artists have been being terrible. Jimi Hendrix was rumored to have beat many of the women he dated. Jerry Lee Lewis married his thirteen-year-old cousin, and how that could be consensual, I'm not sure. Both men are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Mystical was released from prison in January, after serving six years for sexual assault and battery, and the Chris Brown and Rihanna saga, though seemingly blown over by media standards, happened. This is not an excuse, rather an acknowledgment that I understand why some will never like R. Kelly -- artist, human, or otherwise.
When I listen to R. Kelly, I am consistently confounded. Even if I've heard "Kelly's 12 Play (remix)" one hundred times over, I come across something new in his lyrics or melody structure I previously missed, a gem of Kells self-pep talking or a vocal line that dips so low you can hear him laughing (at himself) in the background.
This particular take on "12 Play" I'm referencing is from his 2009 mixtape The Demo Tape, and is a song -- about his own song. Kells goes into detail about how his music is the best music to play when having sex, and how the parents of this imaginary or perceived lady he's about to lay down probably did it to his 1993 album, 12 Play. Kelly even proclaims "12 Play deserves a Grammy, as big as 'I Believe I can Fly'."
He is being serious, I think.
It is a moment like this -- and there are perhaps thousands, if you look at his extensive discography -- that make me wonder: Is R. Kelly a self-aware genius, or so deep in his own psyche that he can't understand how ridiculous he's being within his own lyrics in the tangible world? Does he take himself seriously when singing, "I've got a dick and half, so ladies, don't argue"?
Maybe he does imagine a scenario where his penis is, in fact, some sort of super penis and a half. With this line alone, he takes the ridiculousness of R&B the next level, whether or not he means to. It is also a perfect example of what R. Kelly is best at: Stream-of-consciousness lyrical word play. He plays directly from mind to tape, like he has no filter.
Watching Kelly's videos may also give insight into his level of seriousness (or a lack thereof.) In the 2007 clip for "I'm a Flirt (remix)" the single off of Double Up, Kell's says, "A dog on the prowl when I'm walking through the mall, if I could, man, I probably would flirt with all of y'all."
It is at that moment that Kelly reveals a subtle smirk. For that half of a second, he makes eye contact with the camera and lifts the corner of his mouth as if to say, "I got you." I thought for a long time that this flash of a smile was the key to unlocking the genius of R. Kelly. But then he released The Demo Tape, and my theory was blown apart. I still had no idea if he knew the power of his humor.
Double Up also gave us "Real Talk," perhaps the best filter-less, stream-of-consciousness R. Kelly tracks of all time. In this mini-masterpiece, Kells tells the story of a fight he had with his girlfriend, while having the fight with his girlfriend, on the phone. Throughout the song, he reminds her (and us) that this conversation, although it may not be real, is in fact "real talk." It is an actual conversation that many of us have had with a significant other, because Kelly is just like us. However epic and mind-blowing all 22 chapters of Trapped in the Closet were, to me, "Real Talk" is at the pinnacle of understanding that R. Kelly is just a man, and maybe, a genius.
I'm not here to convince you to like R. Kelly. This is just a small piece of my thoughts on a man who makes multi-dimensional pop music that I very much enjoy. Though there are many reasons not to like R. Kelly, neither he nor I care too much to entertain them, because, as he says, "Haters gonna hate, and they ain't gonna quit. Well, I say fuck 'em with a sand paper dick."