Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Where Egos Dare

R. Kelly's dirty soul

By Alex Pappademas

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  Want proof that some guys will do anything to get laid? Check out "The Opera," a 90-second interlude halfway through the first disc of R. Kelly's R. (Jive). It's The Barber of Seville as boot-knockin' proposition -- over mock-classical piano, Kelly sings, "Dim the lights/And hop right in-to bed with me/I will sa-tis-fy your needs."

"The Opera" is a joke. I think. With Kelly, it's always hard to tell. There's a confounding contradiction at the core of his persona -- like generations of soul men before him, he flexes his church-trained vocal chops to sing, explicitly, obsessively, about doin' the nasty. The same conflict drives his stage show, during which he's been known to emerge from a woman's bubble bath, drop his pants, and serenade a giant picture of his late mom. (No, not at the same time.) On CD, Kelly comes off as profoundly passionate and totally full of shit, ready to feel your pain or feel you up. R., his fourth album, is both street and sophisticated, inspirational and irresponsible, Adult Contemporary and Adults Only. It's an overloaded vehicle that believes it can fly, and it soars where egos dare. Kelly does a duet with trash-mouthed hip-hop diva Foxy Brown. Then he does one with Celine Dion. Is this guy for real?

"R. Kelly's laughing half the time, you know he is," Beck told The Face last year. Beck should know -- his next album is said to feature a Kelly-inspired slow jam called "I Wanna Get with You (And Your Sister Debra Too)," already a live favorite. But nobody goofs on Kelly like Kelly himself -- witness his cameo on the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Fuck You Tonight," where he sings the gleefully anti-romantic line "You must be used to me spendin'/And all that sweet wining and dining/But I'm fuckin' you tonight."

And it's hard to imagine anybody singing songs like R.'s "Half on a Baby" with a straight face. "Like a baseball field," he purrs, "I wanna hit a home run." His ultra-smooth delivery turns the worst porn-flick dialogue into poetry -- remember his 1995 hit "You Remind Me of Something," with its "You remind me of my Jeep/I wanna ride you" chorus? Emoting like an angel, soft-pedaling the dirtiest propositions, Kelly couches unabashed carnality in sonic opulence like no singer since Barry White.

The 29-track two-CD R. is R&B as Broadway/Vegas extravaganza, and Kelly throws in everything but the complimentary cocktails. He stages mock interviews. He enlists faded rappers Nas and Keith Murray to deliver champagne toasts. He gives the IHOP a free product placement. He pays homage to Prince on "Spendin' Money" and to the Righteous Brothers on "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time." He displays a persecution complex worthy of Michael Jackson -- the vituperative "What I Feel/Issues" sounds more like Michael than Jackson's Kelly-penned hit "You Are Not Alone."

But when Kelly starts cataloguing the wreckage of his relationships, in raw, specific detail, R. becomes something else entirely. Although he lacks D'Angelo's charisma and Maxwell's new-age freakiness, no contemporary R&B icon better articulates raw regret. "Baby, let's backtrack on what happened in this house," he begs on "Suicide," and R.'s best tracks do just that. On "Down Low Double Life" -- about a two-timer undone by Caller ID -- he offers a spoken-word account of his own fuck-ups. "Okay," a buddy begins, "you're saying . . . these two women, they poured . . ." "Nah, nah, nah, nah," Kelly interrupts, "it wasn't nothing like that . . . I was asleep, they came in, woke me up pourin' hot grits and all kinds of shit on me, man, beatin' me and shit . . . One called up the other when I was out playin' some golf/Talkin' 'bout my doggish ways and how I need to be dropped off."

Putting himself on the other side of Waiting To Exhale's empowered-sista scenario, or Erykah Badu's anthemic kiss-off "Tyrone," Kelly makes the pain real -- you feel those hot grits. Like Sinatra, he's a player who can't wash that girl out of his plasma, unable to blame anyone but himself. "Now I'm sleepin' at my mama's house," he tells us at the end of "Down Low Double Life," "and even she says I don't deserve no help/Must be because of what my old man did to her . . . "

R. should end right there, but it doesn't -- Kelly kills the mood by tacking on the Dion duet "I'm Your Angel," a slab of weapons-grade schmaltz tailor-made for grocery-store speakers. And what's up with the inclusion of his already-multi-platinum Space Jam single, "I Believe I Can Fly," as R.'s grand finale? Like we needed more copies of that song in circulation. It's a crass, cynical move, and beneath him. But maybe that's as it should be. It's probably not possible to come out of a fling with Kelly without hating him a little bit.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Music: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . The Boston Phoenix . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch