Book of Kells
R. Kelly’s memoir is an entertaining read, but too many skeletons stay in the closet.
Photo by Randee St. Nicholas.
When he was getting his start as a Chicago street performer, R. Kelly did some work on the side as a singing stripper in a Star Wars costume. The money was good, but he got into some trouble while seducing women in his Darth Vader mask, black robe, and “little patent-leather drawers.” The male stripper game, you see, “was controlled by big-time thugs who weren’t about to put up with some freelance kid dressed up as Darth Vader cutting into their profits.” After six months, he went back to singing in the subway.
Kelly’s new autobiography, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, is full of moments like this—bizarre, amusing, self-aggrandizing, often sexualized tidbits that burnish the R&B star’s image but don’t pierce his gleaming surface. The book doesn’t lack for revelations. Kelly and his co-writer David Ritz open up about the bullet that pierced his shoulder as a young boy, the tragic death of his first girlfriend, his poverty, his persistent illiteracy, and a childhood molestation that he was too ashamed to reveal until much later in life. It’s impressive and inspiring that Kelly overcame these dips in “the Soulacoaster.” (Considering this is the man who once sang, “Like Jurassic Park, except I'm your sex-a-saurus baby,” the book offers a disappointingly clichéd metaphor for life’s tribulations.) But this is a diary where the elisions are more telling than the disclosures, one that’s been carefully vetted to portray Kelly as a victim, never a victimizer.
The book’s primary mission is to offer a window into Kelly’s prolific genius. As the singer/producer tells it, his musical gifts are the product of genetics, hard work, and God’s grace. His mother, Joann—a soul singer who “sounded like Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin mixed together”—first encouraged him to become a musician, and a high-school teacher named Lena McLin gave Kelly a further push. McLin’s first words to him, supposedly before the singer ever opened his mouth: “The spirit of God is on you, son. You are going to be famous. You are going to write songs for Michael Jackson. … You are anointed.”
Kelly has internalized that prophesy. Ashamed of his inability to read or write, he trapped himself in the closet of McLin’s music room and learned to play piano. But his hit records weren’t birthed there. When he was 9 years old, Kelly explains, he had a dream in which “there were musical notes, except they were all cartoon characters.” When he asked the ’toons who they were, the animated creatures said, “We’re your biggest hit song.” Kelly says he couldn’t remember the words to his dream tune for 20 years, but “I Believe I Can Fly” emerged three hours after he got the call to work on the Space Jam soundtrack. “I really do believe God actually wrote that song,” he says. (The Notorious B.I.G. was the first to hear the song in progress. Kelly says it made Biggie cry.)
Soulacoaster won’t teach you how Kelly writes No. 1 records, but he does revel in how easily he does it. Every few pages, the Pied Piper of R&B bestows his musical gifts on a luminary in need. The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson comes to Kelly’s weekly basketball game desperate for a hit song. Kelly towels off and provides one that night. The down-on-their-luck Isley Brothers have a plane to catch in two hours. Kelly writes “Contagious” before they take flight. Fat Joe charges into his Miami studio and pleads, “Kells, you got to write me a hit, bro.” Thirty minutes later, he’s got “We Thuggin’.” And pity the star who rejects his gold-plated offerings: After Toni Braxton passes on “I Can’t Sleep Baby,” Kelly records it himself. It goes to No. 1 on the R&B charts.
The singer’s infallibility is a recurring theme. Throughout the book, he’s confronted by doubting advisors who seem to materialize only to illuminate Kelly’s impeccable judgment. “You’re exposing too much of yourself,” says an unnamed fellow I’ll call Straw Man Jones. Kelly’s response: “The more real I am, the more powerful my music will be.” Another anonymous advisor, Strawy Strawstein, tells Kelly not to release “Heaven, I Need a Hug” because “they’ll use it against you.” “Listen to me, I’m right,” says Strawy. “I didn’t listen to him because I felt he was wrong,” explains Kelly.