R. Kelly's amazing comeback.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
July 20 2005 12:28 PM

The Insanity Plea

R. Kelly's amazing comeback.

R U insane? Click on image to expand.
R U insane?

It is easy to confuse the profoundly troubled soul singer and producer R. Kelly with someone slowly going mad. His seeming descent began in February 2002, when a videotape of dubious origins was leaked to the Chicago Sun Times. It confirmed the whispers that had long hazed his brilliant, decade-long career: In clear view, one saw Kelly engaging in fairly extreme sexual relations with a young girl rumored to be 14 years old. The seducer's reputation went into free fall; even his Chicago hometown radio stations turned against him. But the backlash ended up amounting to little more than a hiccup; the popularity of his music—those obsessively itemized tributes to his own libido—saved him. In the years since, as he continues to await trial, Kelly has only grown more irrational, referring to himself as the "Pied Piper of R & B," engaging in a cred-crippling tiff with the rapper Jay-Z, and offering himself up for pop martyrdom with songs like "Heaven, I Need a Hug." Two months ago, in preparation for his latest album, TP.3 Reloaded, he released a 17-minute single—with no hook or chorus.

But R. Kelly has never made more sense. Since his debut in the early 1990s, the singer's calling card has been his audacity—in the carefully scripted world of R & B, Kelly does as he chooses, however and whenever he chooses. He is committed to the idea of the sex song in a way that makes his peers sound like novices stalled at second base. As such, he will pretty much try anything. Sometimes this means ignoring the conventions of songwriting, as with the grueling, 12-minute "Sex Me" from 1995's 12 Play; sometimes it means exploring the outer limits of simile, as when he famously praised a girl for reminding him of his Jeep —he wanted to ride both of them. Other times, his uniqueness manifests itself in a total dedication to his song's situations. Where his peers put their lovers on pedestals, one imagines Kelly erecting monuments and founding societies in praise of his. Whereas decorum compels romantic singers to convey their feelings using puffed up terms like "lust" or "desire," Kelly comes across as a plain and desperately horny man.

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R. Kelly's durable appeal relies on the fact that he is genuinely unafraid of the language in his head, no matter how perverse or hokey. While the sex tapes scandalized Kelly the man, they had a liberating effect on Kelly the performer: They vouched for his out-there ambitions and confirmed his general freakishness. There was always something hugely bombastic about his career, with its epic slow jams, double albums, and the heroic shamelessness of songs like "Feelin' on Yo Booty." Now, forever shaded by controversy, the music of R. Kelly flirts with pure madness—and it's better than ever.

Nowhere is this clearer than on TP.3, which pushes Kelly's desires to their nastiest, weirdest extremes. It's an album that plays off his brazen and reckless image and preys on his fans' desires to see and hear even more. (The new album debuted at the top of the charts.) "In the Kitchen" depicts the onset of an irrevocable hard-on, sparked by the slicing of vegetables and the buttering of rolls. (It all ends with the tossing of a salad. ... Take what you will from that.) The hyper-narcissistic "Put My T-Shirt On" commences Round 2, as Kelly tries in vain to resist his girl, who happens to be dressed a bit like him. This is followed by the gorgeous, flickering "Remote Control," wherein Kelly invokes the language of the channel-clicker ("I'll keep goin' 'til you press the stop button, baby") to woo a third time. Kelly has never been a particularly gifted writer—these are songs that look ludicrous when reduced to lyrics on a written page. But, enlivened by Kelly's delicate arrangements and unflagging, focused croon, there is literally nothing else like them.

There is also something disturbing about yet another album that more or less celebrates the all-controlling passions that first got R. Kelly in trouble, with nary a mention of consequence. It's hard to think this isn't intentional. While last year's Happy People/U Saved Me peddled a wholesomeness that suggested a man seeking redemption, TP.3 returns to the oblivious, "Who, me?" raunchiness of his first post-tape album, Chocolate Factory, and its outlandishly sexual single, "Ignition (Remix)."

The closest Kelly comes to introspection is "Trapped in the Closet," the stunning five-part, 17-minute song cycle that closes the album. Despite its prohibitive length and meticulous story line, "Trapped" has become a radio hit and class-crossing conversation piece. Musically speaking, it is unspectacular: The track worms forward with percolator drip-drops, airy pianos, and orchestral crescendos that remain unchanged throughout. Instead, Kelly's bizarre and soapy tale of a one-night stand gone awry carries the song, a story with a vivid cast that includes (spoiler alert) a pastor "on the down low," desperate housewives, and a crooked cop. By the time we survive the cliffhangers and get to the bottom of who did whom— his Web site features all five videos, just in case you missed something—judgments have been suspended, morality has slunk toward relativism, and it is impossible to blame anyone for anything. Over the song's epic duration, you forget and you forgive—or the other way around.

Overly ambitious yet tightly executed, "Trapped in the Closet" perfectly captures how Kelly made his comeback. It is a showy, confident gesture that playfully hints at the facts while seducing you with its fictions, and it begs a question: Is R. Kelly brilliant or crazy? The answer is ultimately irrelevant, since the song obscures a more pressing but less popular question: Is it OK to like someone so cavalier about such serious transgressions? It's easy to sell controversy, and it's even easier to play the victim, but Kelly has—incredibly—done something more subtle: He's invited his fans inside his mania and convinced them to revel in his unhinged odes to sexual healing. Kelly is planning to record five more chapters and complete the "Closet" story on his next album. He's finally thinking with the right head.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.

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