Why I Love R. Kelly
"Homie lover friend is what I'm lookin for
Someone who can relate to what I have in store
She can kick back with the homies
Playin spades, gettin paid
That down to earth girl from around the way
We will be together for all times
I need a homie lover friend that will always be mine."
R. Kelly is the most important R&B artist of the last twenty years. The list goes James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince, R. Kelly. He has had an immeasurable impact on two generations of artists from titans of the genre from Aaliyah to The Weeknd. That his impact is ignored by so many outside of R&B has far more to do with genre snobbery and quietly powerful racism than it has to do with the unproven allegations of underage sex. Much like Michael Jackson, regardless of whether these allegations are true or not, Kelly remains a king of the genre. His music is, in spite of a couple of exceptions, about love, God and dancing.
There is actually remarkably little material that is objectionable, and even those few contain far more comedy and self-parody than Kells is given credit for. Take I Like The Crotch On You and see a man who was more than aware of the persona of a sex fiend that he had built up. It's funny and coarse, intentionally, not by accident. That R. Kelly is reduced to a dumb black man with an out of control sex drive who is not capable of playing with his identity, especially as seen on Trapped In The Closet, goes back to some of the most insidious stereotypes about sexually liberated black men. Namely that they are dumb animals without the capacity for self-aware commentary or being true authors of their work. His talent too, a remarkable array of production, arrangement, writing, and performance, is seen as a force of nature. R. Kelly is seen as a naturally occurring event, not someone who should be rightly called an artist of exceptional talent.
This is a sad fact about the value that society places on black music. From R&B to Funk to Rap, black artists are far less likely to receive the full credit for their work, in comparison to their white peers. Bob Dylan is given the title of Artist in everything he does, even if it is lacking. R. Kelly is just a producer of sex music. That's disposable and has little worth to the Rolling Stones or Pitchforks of the world. You don't have to look too hard to see the all too white crowd that fears and loathes black music of this kind. Take a recent squabble between Brian Wilson's fans and Frank Ocean. This vocal and obnoxious section of Beach Boys fans were worried that this strange black man would take their sacred white music and turn it black. In spite of the fact that Ocean is an amazing singer, they were worried that he would rap on the track and mention all those horrid black obsessions like you know, love between two people. To think that they would have the audacity to do something so alien and dangerous!
So why is R. Kelly's music so special? First, it is life affirming music. It is R&B at its very best, which inspires as much as it entertains. The physical is venerated. Love, sex and dancing are what give life its meaning. Kells makes music that eradicates fear and insecurities. Get on the floor and do your thing. Don't be scared of your body. Kells makes incredibly beautiful love songs, something conveniently ignored when people wish to denigrate his work. His work is dismissed as low art and that he is as on point as anything by Dylan or Leonard Cohen or James Taylor is ignored. Sure, lyrically alone he's not up there but in context, the feelings are as complex and satisfying.
These people say that well behaved black artists have the ability to do something of worth as long as they know their place. Don't get too uppity, don't try to pretend you're an artist. Take the great song Homie Lover Friend Remix. Is there anything so gorgeous as the line "That down to earth girl from around the way"? So much love in those vocals and production. It is just perfect. You are transported to that warm and familiar place. It makes you feel like you're sleeping beside your best love, quiet and gently getting closer.
Or how about I Don't Mean It? "I may think I'm cool, but I'm a fool." A paean to the long term, main love in a life and the ways that taking things for granted can cause distance between two people who love each other. It is a song that makes you stand up and shout praise for the person who can make you feel this damn good! Those who say that they like the "classy" R&B, like Marvin or Cooke, because they're not rude or coarse don't see that R. Kelly's output is 95% in that category. (Classy here means R&B that doesn't scare white people.) Sure, he swears from time to time and is a fan of real talk in the bedroom, but he is just as holy and spiritual and full of love as anything by these legends. He's done a gospel album in U Saved Me, and he's done three throwback albums in Happy People, Love Letter and Write Me Back. He's done everything he possibly can to express that his heart is full of joy and love for the world and yet people still dismiss him as a thug with money.
Probably Kells' best song is the crazy good Exit from his album Untitled, an album that was previously known as Twelve Play: Fourth Quarter. There is so much magic here. "Excuse me miss, somebody say you're looking for me, girl here I go!" That turn... Jesus. There is more character and feeling to this line than a thousand wordy acoustic, recorded in your basement traditional imitating Indie darling albums. There is more worth in this one line than anything Arcade Fire ever recorded. Take that Pitchfork, you pitiful goons! It winds around and brings you to a better place.
R. Kelly's long play masterpiece is Chocolate Factory with the Loveland EP. It features among many great tracks, the Marvin Gaye inspired Loveland, the original stepper Step In The Name of Love and the greatest single of the new Millennium, Ignition Remix. Ignition Remix will be remembered in fifty years as one of the all time classics. Who knew dancing could be this transformative? This holy. This pure. Chocolate Factory was recorded during Kelly's trial and is remarkable for how little that negatively affected his work. This album holds up as a contender for best of the last twenty years, and compares favourably with Innervisions, Bad and Sign 'O' The Times as achievements in music. It takes you on a musical trip and leaves you far more inspired and open to the world than you were before.
A few words have to be said about Kells' ability to write hits for other people. He wrote, produced and featured on Aaliyah's debut album Age Ain't Nuthin But a Number. He wrote and produced the sublime Foolin Around by Changing Faces. He wrote and produced Contagious for the great Isley Brothers. R. Kelly followed his hero Prince in this regard, and as much as I love Prince's proteges (special shout out to The Time!), Kells was far more successful in writing for other people. He is able to bury his own identity for the benefit of the one he is writing for, something Prince's ego never allowed him to do, meaning that he had way, way less hits than he should have had.
"You see I'm wise enough to know when a body's yearning."
Sex is not a dirty thing, and neither is music that is made for sex. It is a precious, human thing. We should hold this work of R. Kelly in high esteem. It has changed so many lives for the better. Kelly has created so much of worth, not just though his own pen but through inspiring two generations of artists, most notably the greatest person making music today, The Weeknd. So put aside your prejudices and preconceptions and just listen to the damn music. It will change you in a positive way. It will give you the tools you need to be a fully functioning human in this world. I include below an exhaustive selection of Kells' best work.
The Book of Kells Part 1
The Book of Kells Part 2
The Book of Kells Part 3
The Book of Kells Part 4
The Book of Kells Part 5
The Book of Kells Part 6