R Kelly is the exception to the rule. After the emergence of swingbeat in the late '80s and its subsequent development into hip-hop-soul in the mid-'90s, swingbeat's biggest stars had gone down the dumper. Big Bub and Today were nowhere to be seen. Guy had split up (indeed, Guy's founder Teddy Riley went on to form the ballad-orientated Blackstreet). Although swingbeat became hip-hop-soul, the stars of swingbeat didn't follow.
R Kelly teamed up with the then unknown Public Announcement. Their 1992 debut album, 'Born Into The '90s' refuted all expectations. That was largely thanks to the group's musically minded new leader, who knew back then that, no matter what genre lay ahead, he was capable of interpreting it. Not everyone would like his interpretations, but the fact was he could.
By the release of his fourth album, he was a Grammy and Soul Train award winner. He'd endured an allegation of marrying a minor, criticism that his lyrical skills circumnavigated the groin rather than the brain, and that he wasn't the musical prodigy he'd had us believe. His penchant for MOR balladry ('I Believe I Can Fly', 'If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time') worried his urban audience, especially those keen to hear more ghetto-angst tracks (like Changing Faces' 'G.H.E.T.T. O.U.T' or Sparkle's 'Be Careful').
Following the release of his fifth album, Kelly has acknowledged all these elements (bar the marriage) head on. He's done what he wants. Delved further into sexual dynamics, MOR balladry and ghetto-angst. Here, he discusses the contradictions…
You've been recording since 1992. Since then, the sound and popularity of R&B has changed. Do you still see yourself as a part of the genre?
I don't like to think of myself as an R&B artist - I've been through too much, been to too many places; written songs from country to pop, blues to jazz to gospel… I can't label myself as 'an R&B artist'. When you've done what I've done, been where I've been, it's kinda hard to label yourself as one thing.
Let's talk about where you've been, specifically your work with mainstream artists Celine Dion and Michael Jackson.
Kelly: I've just put together a song for [country 'singer'] Garth Brooks, and I'm hoping the same thing will happen that happened with me and Celine. I'm hoping he'll hear the song and want to do it with me. When I wrote 'I'm Your Angel', I said to myself, 'Man, this reminds me of Celine Dion.' I said, 'I'm gonna call her and see if she would be interested in doing this with me.' I felt the song needed a female voice, and that's who I heard... I called and she accepted; I was honoured. The thing I love about her most is that it wasn't about colour, it wasn't about who's who and what's what, it wasn't about R&B or pop, it was about a song that meant something to her, to me. It had no colour.
And Michael? Many felt that 'You Are Not Alone' redefined him as a success, following the allegations of child abuse.
It makes me feel good to take someone from one level and take them higher, whether they're known or whether they've never been known. That's my job, that's what I do, and that's what I love. I have a passion for that - not just writing songs, but taking people to certain levels. He reached out to me and asked if I had anything laying around. I was amazed when he called me, because I just didn't expect to go to that level. It was an honour to work with him. We spent days together working in the studio, we got to know each other and how each other works and respect the art. I had to argue with him on that song! Make him sing it! He wanted the K-Ci & JoJo track ['Life', the title track from the Eddie Murphy motion picture soundtrack]. I told him, 'This song is you, trust me. It's gonna be big…' He settled down and got into it.
Back to your own material. What is the aim behind releasing a sequel to the sex-orientated '12 Play'?
I want listeners to feel motivated. I want them to feel they can touch the sky, leap over the moon. I want them to feel that they can accomplish their goals.
Essentially, you want them to 'believe they can fly'?
I want them to feel free when they listen.
But what of the album's sexual connotation? What are listeners to make of that?
I want them to feel my passion. My sexual abilities. A lot of people had said, 'When are you going to do another '12 Play'?' And with the new millennium, I decided to do a '12 Play' 2000, y'know - take it to the bedroom, create more babies, whatever, y'know? The first track that came to mind was 'R&B Thug'… it set off a whole flavour and vibe.
You've included one of your relationship critiques on the CD, 'A Woman's Threat'. Tell us about that.
That's me singing from, I feel, the inside of a woman. I always want to go deep. I wanted a song like 'A Woman's Fed Up', and this is the 2000 [version] of that. If you really get into this LP, you'll come to realise that a lot of songs on the LP remind you of some of the songs on the '12 Play' LP. They're just new songs on other levels.
What's planned for the future?
Probably one more LP, then the movies: directing movies and scoring movies and raising my label, Rockland.
Sparkle was the first artist on Rockland. Who else should we look out for?
A male trio called Talent. We just shot the video for their [debut] single 'Celebrity'. It's hot. These guys are very talented - they've got a lot of energy. I have another four-guy group coming out called Secret Weapon - same thing: very talented, real hard workers.
What are you inspired by?
Women, mostly. My experience with women and my mother's experience with men. I grew up in a house full of women - aunts… a lot of aunts! I've seen them all go through a lot of things with men. I want people to meet the man behind the music as well as the man in the music.