By Randy Wagstaff
A timeline of R. Kelly‘s career would be about as chaotic and debaucherous as the music itself. There was the time when he became religious, the time when he became classically soulful, and all the times in between, where album releases were secondary to legal and personal issues. (Some albums could not even be released in the context of lingering trials and shocking accusations.) There have been twists and turns, but when R. Kelly has been able to point the car and drive, he’s aimed it expertly towards the gutter outside a broken-down strip club, and the result has rarely been less than fascinating. In a genre defined by its baby making ability and raw sexuality, R. Kelly has become, for better or worse, the most sexualized artist of all time. Prince had “Do Me Baby”; R. Kelly has “Crazy Sex.” Marvin had “Let’s Get It On”; R. Kelly has “Show Ya Pussy.” For every step towards outsized artistry taken by his peers, there is a 36 chapter hip-hopera, with a midget soiling himself inside a kitchen cupboard. For every Purple Rain, there is a Black Panties.
In terms of its aesthetic, Black Panties represents a departure from Love Letter’s classical soul and a return to the early 2000’s, when the brilliance of TP-2.com and Chocolate Factory helped R. Kelly establish his dominance over the R&B charts. Today’s musical landscape is a return to the demimonde, where women are lubricious and men girate absent-mindedly in black and white striped suits behind them. Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience put Justin in a suit and tie and told us not to hold the wall; Black Panties has R. Kelly mostly naked, describing his actions in vivid detail. “I already got the Magnum out/you already got your ass poked up,” he sings on “All The Way,” and though we’ve heard him describe sex in every position, we wonder what will happen next, how long it will last, and what form our salacious protagonist will use to relay that information back to us. The creativity of R. Kelly’s music does not spawn from the indecency of its content, but from the musical brilliance of the man himself. His storytelling ability and natural feel for melody are often obscured by the absurdity of the topic, but R. Kelly fans understand the fundamental law of R. Kelly: It’s OK to laugh. (If you can sit through a beautifully constructed, dolphin-related slow jam without laughing, perhaps R. Kelly is not for you.) But there is also “Shut Up,” a song in which R. Kelly talks about his tough road back from throat surgery, thanks his fans, and tells “all the people out there that be running they mouth” to, well, shut up. The beat is simple, but R. Kelly’s voice is always the only instrument he needs, and demonstrating that on this particular track might just be poetic enough to elicit an emotional response.
Some songs are so explicit that to give them radio spins would sound like a Skype conversation between two people who dialled into the internet through Sympatico. “Marry The Pussy” probably won’t get much top-40 rotation, but “Spend That,” which features (of course) Young Jeezy, sounds like it could have made you turn up the car stereo anytime in the last 15 years. That’s the (sex?) genius of R. Kelly: He can make club bangers, he can make soul, he can make opera, but more than anything else, he wants to make love to your girlfriend. There is no doubt that R. Kelly can sing about anything; he just happens to be interested in the carnal, and we just happen to be interested in hearing him tell us about it.