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Sane Man

The Light Unbearableness of Being an R. Kelly Fan

BLACK, HANDSOME, HE SINGS, PLUS HE'S RICH: Kells grabs something that won't lead to an indictment.

By Jess Harvell | Posted 6/6/2007

One question you'd hope those who appreciate music for its camp or ironic qualities--or fans of "outsider art"--occasionally ask themselves is at what point appreciating an artist more for their musical and personal eccentricities than for their craft becomes an insult. R. Kelly's obviously got craft to spare, but R. Kelly's also got eccentricities squirting out of every orifice. And ever since "Ignition (Remix)" in 2003 and especially since "Trapped in the Closet" in 2005, Kelly has attracted a new audience of rubberneckers who couldn't have cared less about the lung-busting slow jams and ballads that were his bread and butter in the '90s.

Many of us who, misguided or not, enjoy Kelly's music as music--and not as camp or kitsch or some sort of inchoate performance art--actually get annoyed by the fact that we now have to mount a defense of the guy on multiple fronts. See, even if your internal moral bullshit detector doesn't start clanging when Kelly's name comes up--if you can just ignore his less than salubrious personal decisions regarding videotapes--and accept the guy as something of a genius when it comes to making R&B with the sway of '70s soul and the smoothness of '80s quiet storm cut with hip-hop braggadocio, the formal excellence of his music unfortunately foregrounds his quirks like plantar warts on a foot model.

This is nothing new, either; Kelly's songs have been stuffed for a decade now with these poker-faced non sequiturs--the "two gorillas making love" ad lib in 2003's "Snake," for instance." Or think of 2000's "A Woman's Threat," a moving song where Kelly assumes the persona of a long-suffering female lover delivering a litany of what her man stands to lose--"My time, my patience, my love"--if he doesn't shape up. Then Kelly begins retelling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in precisely the same earnest croon he uses for the rest of the song--maybe more earnest.

But ever since the child pornography charges first dropped and the guy released an appeal called "Heaven I Need a Hug," nearly every piece of criticism written about Kelly's music has hinged on some variation of the question "is he in on the gag or not?" usually tied to rhetorical questions about his mental health. "Is he gonna end up in prison or getting pills handed to him in a little plastic cup?" The Village Voice quipped in 2004. "Is R. Kelly a joke or a genius?" Pitchfork asked in 2005, reiterating the question in advance of Kelly's new album Double Up. "The question of self-awareness is key in his ability to attract listeners . . . the most fascinating camp is that which obscures the line between what is intentionally humorous and unintentionally humorous," VH1 critic Rich Juzwiak recently wrote on his blog about Kelly, which is still essentially an erudite take on the same question. For R&B fans who appreciate Kelly's exquisite craft and who would rather be punched in the extremity of your choice than listen to something for potential "unintentionally humorous" moments, this critical chatter is exhausting.

Unfortunately with Double Up, Kelly's lyrical eccentricities and freshman-year conceptual leanings continue to grow like kudzu, and it makes parts of the album a chore. On "Sex Planet," one outer-space metaphor for fucking after another, Kelly actually delivers the tidally inevitable "when I enter your black hole" and "we'll take a trip to planet Uranus" lines with the granite facade of a hostage negotiator. On "Sweet Tooth," Kelly intimates that his lover's genitals taste like Skittles, though he doesn't mention whether that's tropical fruit, sour, or original flavor.

As a guy who always sounds like he's working from a hastily written first draft, Kelly is still better at continual agglomeration of batshit asides than a narrative arc. On the Kells-in-prison tale "Best Friend," when asked if there's anything he needs from the outside, Kelly says that "this toilet paper is cutting my ass," and that he could really use some Charmin. "Real Talk," one half of a phone argument where Kelly's unheard lover wonders where he's been and who he's been doing, takes his cinéma vérité rambling to its illogical limit, with Kelly spraying the receiver with saliva that "next time your ass get horny, go fuck one of your funky ass friends" before shouting to his chauffeur to take him home.

Despite being faintly frightening in its intensity, which is new, it's of a piece with Kelly songs like "Three Way Phone Call," and like many of those songs, the music on "Real Talk" could just as easily be the solo from Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" or three minutes of Pong sound effects. It's really got no value as a "song" of the sort that one dances to or sings along with, and so for some, Kelly is extending some sort of new Kelly-specific idiom on Double Up. For others, though, Kelly has begun humping the shark as he sings through a vocoder about being "two sexasauruses." Or as City Paper contributor John Darnielle recently said when confronted with "Real Talk," "I oppose the critical Buckwheatification of R. Kelly, but what can you say when the guy's emotional climax is an appeal to his driver?"

See, sadly for those of us who want to shift the dialogue about his music, Double Up is hardly Kelly at his best. You can skip past whenever he takes a wack stab at proving he's hard over his guest producers' cruddy (but at least up to date) keyboard-and-bass hip-hop beats, as in "Rollin'" and "Get Dirty." But the best of Double Up--the sunny likes of the "I'm a Flirt" remix, "Hook It Up," "Freaky in the Club," and the title track--are still reminders of Kelly's Isleys-honed ability to craft bounce bounce bounce bounce-worthy radio soul so slickly seductive that it's downright insulting to treat the man as if he was cranking out art-brut finger paintings of his own ass and selling them on a Chicago street corner. The dude's got skills in the studio, if not as preternatural or wide-ranging as Prince's, then as close as such a creature of commerce before sex or art is likely to get.

Some critics might argue that 2003's Chocolate Factory was the only filler-free album Kelly ever made and that he's had a boner for forehead-slapping metaphor since "You Remind Me of Something" and that we shouldn't be talking about the guy anyway since he's, you know, an alleged pederast. Even if all that's true--and some of it is truer than the rest--the shift toward reducing Kelly's music to possibly unintentional stand-up comedy with a beat is lamentable but possibly irreversible following his last couple of projects. At least Double Up is thankfully not a half-assed conceptual step on from "Trapped in the Closet." How could it be unless Kelly was going to buy a harp and follow Joanna Newsom down the prolix primrose path of Ys?

"Trapped in the Closet" spun a Greek tragedy drunk on the inanities of daytime TV plotting, modern African-American off-Broadway theater (see: Tyler Perry), and Kelly's own inability to think beyond the next improbable twist. It was more like an exquisite corpse written by one guy with extreme ADD than a "pop opera." And that should have been that. Instead, the millions who laughed at the midget who was blessed gave Kelly--his quasi-embarrassing opus assuring that he'd definitely be remembered as something other than a guy more talented than any given member of Silk, Jodeci, or Dru Hill--too much rope. He's now got a choice as to whether to hang himself. What's wrong with just making formally perfect R&B anyway? Hopefully it turns out the closet wasn't more of a trap than any of us realized.

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