BY LLOYD H. CARGO
Published December 5, 2007
I love to argue about music, but most people don't. There does, though, seem to be one person that a lot of people have some pretty strong opinions about: Robert Kelly. Want to start a fight at a party or alienate your friends? Tell them that R. Kelly is the Marvin Gaye of our generation. I guarantee the conversation doesn't end there.
I really do believe that R. Kelly is a genius, and I don't bandy that term about lightly. So was Marvin Gaye; that's not even really up for debate. In fact, they're brilliant for similar reasons, so why do people who revere the latter not take the former seriously?
The argument generally starts with "He sucks cause he pees on kids," which isn't really fair. Yes, he has been charged with as much, and the video is pretty damning, but that has absolutely nothing to do with his music. All sorts of brilliant people have done far nastier things. We're able to separate their art from their messy personal lives but, for some reason, R. Kelly is a monster to many. Marvin Gaye had a sex addiction and a formidable porn collection, but no one holds that against him (rightfully so).
To a lot of other people, R. Kelly is just a joke. "How can you take him remotely seriously? He's, like, retarded!" is another familiar retort. No, he's like, funny. Humor is an element that's been missing from music for a little while now, but it wasn't always so rare. R. Kelly isn't afraid to laugh at himself, to write ridiculous lyrics or make hilarious YouTube videos. And you know what? It works.
The one thing no one can argue about is R. Kelly's undeniable success. He burst onto the R&B scene in 1992 with supporting band Public Announcement for his debut album, Born into the '90s, and has never looked back. Thirteen mega-selling albums and 15 years later he's still making hits. From "I Believe I Can Fly" to "Ignition (Remix)" to "Real Talk," he's never let up, still on top of the charts and in heavy rotation even while wrapped up in controversy.
I'm talking about hits he writes, produces and records himself. Hits he's written for other people, hits that he's sung with other people - and I'm not talking about Ashanti and Ja Rule. I'm talking about The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Nas and Michael Jackson. Those guys respected him, and no one would ever shit on their tastes or accomplishments. Sales don't mean everything - a lot of people I'd say aren't talented sell a lot of albums, but longevity and the ability to evolve with trends are something only great artists can claim.
As for the Marvin Gaye comparison, I'm not sure I would put R. Kelly's voice on par with the Motown crooner, but the two stack up similarly, both having an innate skill for songs of the erotic variety. Quick, which one wrote "You Sure Love to Ball" and which one wrote "Honey Love"? There's not so much of a difference here, and one could even argue that Kelly's sex metaphors are a bit more skillful. Sure, "The Zoo" and "Sex Planet" aren't the type of songs that have women dropping their panties, but that's hardly the point.
R. Kelly has successfully turned into a parody of himself, and whether you believe he's in on the joke or not, he's entertaining. Case in point: Trapped in the Closet. A brilliant, somewhat original format Kelly dubbed "Hip-Hopera" and released in chapters was such a hit it got the ultimate honor of a South Park parody.
That R. Kelly is a genius because he's a supremely talented joke and Marvin Gaye was a genius because of his social and erogenous sensitivity is where people usually get hung up. But that's when ". of our generation" part comes in.
That comparison is serious, but it's also an indictment of where music and its social conscience have gone. The fact that hip hop has lost perspective on the original voice of its creators and their intents isn't R. Kelly's fault, and in a lot of ways, he's turned things back around. R. Kelly isn't being taken advantage of, and I think a lot of people are scared of him because of it.
You don't have to love the man or his music to recognize his accomplishments and judge him on those merits. R. Kelly is a tremendous artist and, as I'm fond of saying, the second black Jesus (the first is the normal Jesus).