Yes, Robert Kelly has interesting tastes to say the least. Luckily, he also has effective lawyers and P.R. people, because he is still able to continue making slow-jam bump and grind music to this day, instead of being jammed and ground from behind in a federal prison as an incarcerated child molester.
And while Mr. Kelly apparently owns a predilection to pubescent women and water sports, one thing that he doesn’t seem to have is a sense of shame: when the heat is turned up on Kelly, he revels in it, sometimes turning it into a big joke. Take for instance one of the nicknames which which he has glossed himself in recent years: The Pied Piper. Yes, that’s right, the man who married a 15-year-old, who was arrested on multiple counts of child pornography, who is infamous for a predilection towards female partners under the age of 18, now proudly refers to himself under the name of a fairytale musician who stole KIDS away from their parents and took them away to his “magical land.”
Kelly’s infamy is so great that it isn’t necessary to go into detail about his two most extreme cases of notoriety, but at least a glance is required for completeness:
On August 31, 1994, Kelly married Aaliyah D. Haughton, niece of Kelly’s manager Barry Hankerson, in a hotel room in Rosemont, Illinois. According to a number of sources, including (in 2000) Kelly’s own spokeswoman, Kelly and Aaliyah had been dating for months prior. Unfortunately, Aaliyah was also 15 years old at the time of the wedding, and the marriage certificate had been secured with a fake ID obtained by one of Kelly’s assistants, which listed the young singer as 18. While both singers denied the marriage and any relationship, a Chicago Sun Times investigation found a certificate of marriage for the two on file with the Cook County Registrar. The marriage appears to have been almost immediately annulled with the help of Aaliyah’s parents.
In June 2002, Kelly was arrested on a number of charges involving child pornography, as a videotape surfaced of Kelly having intimate relations with a girl reportedly only 14 years old. This is the videotape that involved an act which became immortalized a couple of years later in a Chappelle’s Show sketch. While Kelly’s purported sex partner stated that she was not the person shown on the tape, more than 50 other witnesses familiar with both the tape and the girl said that she was (there was also the fact that the girl was referred to by her first name in the tape). After just over six years of hearing, motions, drag-outs, and postponements, Kelly was eventually “cleared” all 14 counts against him. I put cleared in quotes because the main reason Kelly was found not guilty seems to be because his accuser would not testify against him. It was also rumored at one time that part of the defense’s argument would be that Kelly was actually digitally inserted into the video. At another point, one of Kelly’s estranged brothers stated that he was contacted by Kelly, who pled with him to take the fall in exchange for money and a recording contract.*
*Chicago music journalist Bill Wyman did excellent work on his blog regarding the R. Kelly trial, and put together a string of articles labeled “R. Kelly SexFacts” that showed the two stories above were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Kelly’s inappropriate physical behavior with the opposite sex, especially in the area of underage girls.
In addition there are the other accusations of bad or just plain weird behavior, including a series of in-concert arguments that led to his getting kicked off of his own co-headlining tour with Jay-Z in 2004. After one of the arguments (where he reportedly assaulted a lighting technician), Kelly stormed out of the venue before the show was over, went to a nearby McDonalds…and proceeded to serve customers through the drive-thru for a number of hours. Then there was the 2003 interview he gave where he stated “Osama bin Laden is the only one who knows exactly what I’m going through.” Probably not the best choice of words to get people to sympathize with you. At least Kelly is able to keep humble about his music and his place in black history, right? Not so much. In a 2007 magazine interview, he compared himself to Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, and Martin Luther King.
It is Kelly’s enlarged ego that, I believe, has led him to not only blur the lines of the moral and the criminal, but has affected his music as well. With a seeming lack of ability to be self critical, Kelly not only makes excuses for the weaknesses in his actions, but also cannot edit out the weaknesses in his recordings. Every one of his solo recordings clocks in at over an hour, while one of them (1998’s R.) clocks in at over two hours. So while he has been able to fill up a greatest hits album full of tremendous singles over his 15-plus years in the industry, he has never made an album devoid of filler. There is simply too much repetition in his work. Even his best ideas — whether it be the “Trapped in the Closet” series, or his use of borderline hysterical metaphors to describe the sexual process — get hammered into the ground, sometimes during the course of a single disc, until they become more tedious than clever.
But this series is not about bad people making masterpieces, merely “good albums.” And judging it on that scale, Kelly’s 1995 self-titled album qualifies. The album opens, after a pulpit-style diatribe by R. Kelly against those who want to see him fail, with the smooth, summery jam “Hump Bounce” (download), nicely incorporating samples of James Brown’s “The Payback.” A similarly laid-back party anthem shows up on the second half of the disc with the album’s third single, “Thank God It’s Friday.” The breezy “Step in My Room” (download) has a classic Babyface feel to it, and an excellent hook at the end of the chorus (though his frankness as to letting his lady know not only how but exactly where in his house he’s going to satisfy her is a bit of a laugh-inducing moment). Kelly also brings the Isley Brothers out of nowhere and gave Ronald Isley the new identity of Mr. Big in the song and video for the slow and satiny “Down Low,” which became a number #4 Pop and #1 R&B hit.* And “Religious Love” (download) is such a lovely track (with an almost haunting keyboard wash backing the arrangement) that Kelly saw fit to later include it as the B-side of his monster smash, “I Believe I Can Fly.”
*I’ve always thought this was a bit of an odd song, since by the time it was recorded, the term “down low” had already started being referred to in black culture as the practice of heterosexual men having homosexual encounters separate and unknown to the other areas and individuals in their lives. And yet Kelly’s song is strictly heterosexual. What was his intention with this? Was it a play on the fact that the two voices singing the song are men? Was he thumbing his nose at homosexuals? Or did he simply not know about the varied ways “down low” was being used in black culture? (It should be noted that mainstream media did not jump on the concept of “down-low as homosexual duplicity” until a New York Times story in 2001.)
The album’s true work of art is the never-ending double-entendre “You Remind Me of Something,” in which Kelly — trying to jog his memory as to exactly what the lady in the song is like — proceeds to give a list of things he likes to “ride,” “pump,” “wax” and “spend” (wait….spend? How do you spend a woman?). The video matches the pseudo-cheeky nature of the lyrics, as R. Kelly demonstrates the fine art of seduction by showing off one’s rides, house, and basketball court.