On a recent afternoon R. Kelly found himself onstage in a small Manhattan nightclub, singing a gorgeous, gentle version of the Sam Cooke classic "You Send Me." When he finished, he looked up from the piano, expecting applause. There was none. This wasn't a concert, after all, it was a photography shoot for a magazine.
And so, while a few dozen assistants and stylists and hangers-on continued to assist and style and hang on, Mr. Kelly applauded his own performance. He said: "Y'all won't give it up for me? All right, I'll give it up for y'all." And soon everyone else joined in.
It often seems that Mr. Kelly's enormous appetite for adulation is matched only by his remarkable power to generate it. That power has been put to the test during the last year and a half. In June 2002 he was indicted in Chicago on 21 counts involving child pornography after the authorities said he made a sexually explicit videotape with an under-age girl. That tape, which surfaced in February 2002, has been widely bootlegged and sold by street-corner vendors, flea-market salesmen and even some record stores. In January he was arrested in Miami and charged with 12 counts of possession of child pornography, including photographs of himself having sex with a minor.
When asked about the charges, Mr. Kelly (born Robert Kelly), declined to discuss them, but offered a message to his fans: "Tell them that Rob's O.K. and through the grace of God, Rob's going to be O.K."
The appearance of the videotape threatened to end a great career for this Grammy-winning R&B singer, especially since that career was built on songs that turn romantic declarations into dirty jokes, and vice versa. From "Bump n' Grind" (which begins, "My mind's telling me no/But my body, my body's telling me yes") to "Feelin' on Yo Booty," it was nearly impossible to listen to Mr. Kelly's music without thinking about his predicament.
His name quickly became the punch line to jokes about predatory sexual behavior. His eagerly anticipated album with Jay-Z, "The Best of Both Worlds," was released in March 2002 with little fanfare and to disappointing sales. After the charges in Chicago, his hometown, his songs were pulled off the airwaves at a radio station there, B-96 (WBBM-FM, 96.3). That station's program director, Todd Cavanah, played down the ban, noting that at the time the station had only two R. Kelly songs in rotation, adding that it had resumed playing Mr. Kelly's music.
Looking back, Barry Weiss, the president of Mr. Kelly's record label, Jive, admitted, "I can't say that it wasn't a little bit scary."
Yet Mr. Kelly never went away. Last year he finished a comeback album, "Love Land," that was widely bootlegged before its release; it is now "ghetto platinum," some say. So he scrapped "Love Land" and created an even better album, "Chocolate Factory" (Jive), a 17-song apology presented as a love letter, which nodded to the soul sound of the 1970's while reaffirming Mr. Kelly's position as the hip-hop generation's greatest singer-songwriter.
He made one of his first postscandal appearances at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., on Jan. 16, and the crowd gave him a sustained standing ovation, which seemed to bring him to tears. Since then "Chocolate Factory," released in February, has sold some 2.5 million copies, making it one of this year's most successful albums.
Mr. Kelly also wrote and produced "Body Kiss" (DreamWorks), a hit album by the Isley Brothers, and he has created hit singles for Ginuwine, Nick Cannon, JS, Marques Houston and others. He contributed a song called "Outrageous" to the forthcoming Britney Spears album, and he has collaborated with Michael Jackson on a new single, "One More Chance."
To celebrate (and to cash in), Mr. Kelly has released a pair of greatest-hits compilations: a two-CD set called, "The R. in R&B Collection: Volume 1" and a DVD-CD package called "The R. in R&B: The Video Collection," both from Jive.
At Sony Studios in Midtown Manhattan, after an interview and performance for the radio station Hot 97 (WQHT-FM, 97.1), Mr. Kelly sounds at once arrogant and helpless. "I hear a song and I can't even finish it because I'm hearing something else," he said. "It has always been like that for me. I just keep getting better, that's all, because I do it so much."
Mr. Kelly insists on the distinction between the man and the character. The man is Robert Kelly, 36, married with three children, a lifetime Chicagoan. The character is R. Kelly (or, as in the title of his 1997 double album, simply "R."), unpredictable and more than a little scary, who has spent the last 15 years chronicling his loftiest aspirations and his basest obsessions. "People have to learn how to separate me from show business," he said.
He has to say this; any singer of sex songs who was facing child pornography charges would say the same thing. But one senses that not even Mr. Kelly believes it. He has spent his career inviting listeners to ignore the difference between art and life.
Inside the double album "R.," for example, there is a picture of Mr. Kelly shirtless, and a wild, desperate inscription: "See this man. Know this man. Touch this man. Embrace this man. Pay this man. Believe this man. Trust this man. Belong to this man. Take care of this man. Love this man. Pray for this man." Can he blame his fans if they have done what he asked them to do?
He might have added a 12th commandment to this list: Forgive this man. Since Mr. Kelly released his first album, "Born Into the 90's," in 1991, his fans have had to ignore rumors of sexual misconduct; his swiftly annulled marriage to the singer Aaliyah, when she was 15, has long been one of the music industry's most poorly kept secrets.
Soon after the current scandal broke, he released a single called "Heaven I Need a Hug," which hinted at atonement without fessing up to anything. The verses criticized "clowns" masquerading as friends, the news media and judgmental "church folk," while the chorus revolved around the same question that Mr. Kelly always poses: "Is there anybody out there willing to embrace a thug?"
Mr. Kelly usually finds more licentious ways to pose this question. His biggest hit this year is "Ignition (Remix)," a self-referential song expressly designed as a tool of seduction. (It ends with the singer in a truck, listening to the same song he is singing, engaged in the same activity he is singing about.) "Thoia Thoing," Mr. Kelly's current hit, includes a couplet in which he describes his ideal night: "We at my crib so it ain't no rules/I'm butt-naked, sweat socks and house shoes." And at concerts Mr. Kelly has been singing a self-explanatory new song called "Sex in the Kitchen."
Mr. Weiss flinched when Mr. Kelly did a brief a cappella version of this last song at Sony Studios; he knew he would be hearing it on the radio for days or weeks to come. But afterward, when asked about the song and about Mr. Kelly's general enthusiasm for smutty lyrics, Mr. Weiss quoted something he said the singer told him. "He said, `I'm a lion in the jungle, and a lion's got to be a lion, otherwise he's going to get devoured,' " Mr. Weiss recalled. "For better for worse, he's got to stay true to his audience. R. Kelly's got to be R. Kelly."
Oddly enough, the scandal has only made it easier to see why so many people love Mr. Kelly's music. B-96 started playing his music again not because Mr. Cavanah suddenly became convinced that Mr. Kelly was innocent, but because "Ignition (Remix)" was so irresistible; its simple keyboard line and lazy backbeat keep time while Mr. Kelly sings counter-melodies and tricky rhythms.
Mr. Kelly has found a way to reconcile the restless cadences of hip-hop with the smooth delivery of soul music, thereby inventing his own subgenre. He has a knack for great tunes, too: after the second chorus, he often adds a soaring bridge, taking a song in an entirely unexpected direction. To find a comparable figure, Mr. Weiss looks to decades past, calling Mr. Kelly "the modern-day Prince, although there's a bit of Marvin Gaye in him, and a bit of Irving Berlin."
Mr. Kelly's career has flourished despite child pornography charges, but there is no saying what could happen if he were to be convicted. ("I try not to think about that stuff," Mr. Weiss said.) Jerry Lawrence, a spokesman for the Cook County state attorney's office in Chicago, said that Mr. Kelly must ask a judge for permission to travel for concerts. Both cases are in their pretrial discovery phases.
Mr. Kelly seems convinced that the adulation of his fans helps him survive just about anything, and it is clear that he would not have survived this long without them. One song he sang at Sony Studios was "Step in the Name of Love (Remix)," a velvety tribute to the Chicago-bred form of line dancing called stepping. The final refrain begins, "When they ask us why we did it . . . ," and each time Mr. Kelly sang this line a member of his entourage, standing near the back of the studio, shouted out, "Why you did it, Rob?" Mr. Kelly had invited about a dozen female fans onstage, and they danced around him (some begging friends in the audience to take pictures) while he sang the answer: "We did it for love."
When the performance was over, the host, Angie Martinez, asked Mr. Kelly if he had any parting words. He smiled. "A crowd like this?" he said. "Ain't no such thing as parting words. I'll see you soon. I love you".