This might come off as 'out of touch' or even elitist in some regard, but the only time I encounter, in real life or via social media, people who proudly listen to R. Kelly is when the issue of the many allegations against him is raised. Otherwise, I don’t hear people randomly asking if I “heard that new R. Kelly” or debating his place in the upper ranks of R&B greatness. Yet when someone draws the ever-relevant “F*ck R. Kelly” card based on his well-known status as an alleged sexual predator, he’s a “musical genius” and suddenly, enjoyment of his music becomes a reason to separate the man from the music. I find it difficult to do that, even if I wanted to, when the man’s music is about nothing but sex. For me, therein lies the challenge to the idea that R. Kelly is innovative, let alone a genius, in the realm of music, all wrongdoing or allegations of such aside (although when you consider the recent Village Voice interview of reporter Jim DeRogatis, it’s hard to put them aside). Even if you can somehow ignore all of the nauseating details of the charges that have been leveled against him, the music does not stand on its own merit, so the free pass R. Kelly seems to have been given by the Black community and the public at large seems questionable.
12 Play, Kelly’s debut solo album, can safely be considered a classic and I wouldn’t disagree, considering its influences on the sound at the time and the fact that this hip hop-inspired approach to intimacy was relatively new to R&B. Long after many of his peers at the time have faded out, however, Kelly is still known for raunch, with little variation. Kelly, as a producer, created a great sound, but looking back, the lyrics were never really there to begin with. If anything, his work got more and more obtuse over time, to a point where Kelly cannot be taken seriously when discussing music and innovation in it.
Barry Weiss once referred to Kelly as a combination of Prince, Marvin Gaye and composer/songwriter Irving Berlin. Weiss obviously has a vested interest in speaking highly of the artist (he was then the president of Jive, Kelly’s label) and I can’t see any validity in that assessment. While Prince was definitely a boundary-pusher in terms of lyrics and image, there is a certain cleverness present in his work even to this day that’s missing from Kelly’s, when you consider boorish tracks like “Sex Weed” ("Girl its like a dime bag dro/The way you movin that kush real slow/Got me floatin like a butterfly/I'm so high, I can touch the sky") and “Sex Planet” ("Shooting stars, a trip to Mars/I can get us there from where we are/So don't trip I got a giant rocket/Gliding through, just hittin' your pocket")that don't quite pass the "creative genius" sniff test. There’s just not a lot going on under the surface, which is okay—unless you’re comparing the man to legends or trying to defend your inalienable right to listen to someone the world has seen urinate on someone who may have been a 15-year-old girl. Though I try to avoid putting artists on a shelf to where they can’t be discussed and compared, the Marvin Gaye comparison seems like Weiss was pulling names from a hat and picked one that was terrible, but that he would not be asked to defend, so it worked. R. Kelly will be remembered in music history; this is for sure. Will he hold the same respected place that Marvin Gaye did? Absolutely not. And he shouldn't.
Kelly’s new album, entitled Black Panties, has a song called “Marry The Pussy” on it. There is also a song called “Cookie," which is a metaphor for…you guessed it…vagina. This sort of vulgarity is par for the course for Kelly; 12 Play, for example, boasted a song called “I Like The Crotch On You." However, the subtlety with which he once played the raunch card has gone the way of the live DJ. This is the guy who ran around for some years calling himself R&B's "Pied Piper," the subject of a German legend where a piper, after not being paid for ridding the town of a rat infestation, uses his magic pipe to lure the children of the town of Hamelin away, never to return again. Come on, people. A pipe being used to lead children away from their parents? It’s almost a slap in the face to consider this image choice for the singer, given the many allegations against him and very public investigations into his actions as a pursuer and abuser of underage women. It just isn’t clear whether R. Kelly makes the type of music he makes because of his reputation or in spite of it, but what is clear is that the music and the reputation cannot be processed as two mutually oblivious entities.
Music is, of course, subjective and people will like what they like and be impressed by whatever impresses them, but when you use words like “genius” to describe a person, the issue is certainly up for debate, if only to open up an intelligent dialogue about music. R. Kelly can be considered an innovator for sure. His sound dominated the R&B soundscape in the mid and late 1990's in much the same way that Teddy Riley’s did earlier in the decade . The drawback, however, is that Kelly’s blunt approach to sexuality in music set a lower standard for creativity in R&B. Instead of the overtly sensual “Let’s Get It On”, it became acceptable to just go ahead and say “Sex Me” and while it all sounds nice in terms of production and arrangement, the lyrics are bland and uninspired—something that has came to be the norm for Kelly's odes to sex. To me, his influence is largely why we have songs today “Cake”, in which Chris Brown croons “I wanna f*ck you right now." The banality has become commonplace and it’s sad when R&B music, best created with some modicum of tenderness and vulnerability, begins to imitate rap in its crudeness and bravado.
Writers do the difficult task of assessing the music at face value, trying to avoid artists’ Twitter tantrums, reality show appearances, offensive lyrical decisions and criminal records that would normally allow you to write someone off. In R. Kelly’s case, it's admittedly easy for me to dismiss the music on it's own merits, because not much that he’s done since before the legal trouble began in 2002 has been very impressive, short of the "Step In the Name of Love" records that are far outnumbered by his crass odes to sex. As an adult listener who’s old enough to appreciate what came before, Kelly’s work insults the intelligence. Add to that the fact that Kelly’s image and reputation are absolutely reprehensible, and one wonders just what is making fans want to give him a pass in the first place.
Shaka Shaw lives in the Bay Area, California and is the founder and lead writer at Front-Free.com