And for his next trick, R. Kelly will make you love country music. But before he dives into tragic love songs, VIBE talks to Chi-Town’s prodigal son about being brilliantWORDS: Keith Murphy
ILLUSTRATION: Jack Hughes
The genius of 46-year-old singer/songwriter/producer Robert Sylvester Kelly is in his otherworldly ambition. “I’ve really been writing a lot of country songs,” says the Chicago native. He’s serious. “I used to get criticized for doing a ‘Bump & Grind’ then turning around and doing a gospel song. But the truth is I’m glad I have a gift that allows me to switch lanes.” Kelly embracing his inner Johnny Cash should not be taken as some Snoop Lion switch up. Who is willing to place a bet against the man who struggled with reading only to become one of the greatest writers of his generation?
Kelly’s money has always been on his talent. He had designs of penning his own brand of rhythm and blues: devilish admittances via gospel vocals (12 Play). and that should have been the end of the story, except we’d be stuck in 1993. Over the next two decades, Kelly would total nearly 40 million albums sold as a soloist, birthing some of the best R&B ever heard (ex. 1998’s R, 2001’s TP-2.com, and 2003’s Chocolate Factory).
But world-beating stats do not make a genius. It’s breaking outside your comfort zone as the modern-day king of sex-drenched bedroom instruction to become an evolved studio visionary (Aaliyah, Changing Faces, Isley Brothers). It’s pulling off a seamless segue into the pop realm delivering monstrous hits for icons like Michael Jackson and Celine Dion; all while remaining a staple in the hip-hop sphere (his multitude of collaborations with Jay-Z and Biggie). Even when Kelly is at his most ridiculous—study the ‘hood-musical-meets-soap-opera saga “Trapped in the Closet”—it somehow works.
The greatest musical mind of the VIBE era took time out to discuss his genius process, surviving pornography charges in 2002 and why his next album Black Panties will reclaim his freak flag.
VIBE: What does genius mean to R. Kelly?
R. Kelly: That’s a hard question, man. But I don’t consider myself a genius. When I think of musical geniuses, I think of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Prince. That’s who comes to mind.
Your high school music teacher Lena McLin pushed you to sing Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” during a talent show. And the legend goes you received thunderous applause. Was this the moment you realized you wanted to become a professional singer?
That sealed the deal! That was Peter Parker being bit by the spider [laughs]. That was my first time feeling the love from a crowd, like 500 kids in an auditorium standing up and screaming. I’m like, “What? Who is behind me?” [Laughs]
How did being a struggling songwriter who performed on the Chicago L train station shape the hitmaker you’d eventually become?
It was a struggle, but it helped me to have a strong voice because singing over L’s and how loud they were [laughs]. You had to be a strong singer.
You once said in a 1998 interview, “I’ve been boxed with one style of music. I want to show people that I’m a global writer and I can do “Half on a Baby” and turn around and do “I Believe I Can Fly.” Can you talk about your musical range?
My talent is more than just sexual songs. There was a time I desperately needed for the world to know that I was no category guy. My whole goal in life was to reach that certain success where people will say, “Hey, that guy can do anything. He’s the Evel Knievel of music. He’s jumping over 15 buses!”
You’ve written for everyone from Michael Jackson (“You Are Not Alone”) to Celine Dion (“I’m Your Angel”). How do you get in the mind frame to write for acts that differ so much from your style and sound?
I really know how to tap into certain characters and artists. Like when I did Michael Jackson, to prepare for writing [“You Are Not Alone”], I put all of his pictures on every wall in my studio. I had Moonwalker playing on all my screens. And I didn’t listen to any other music but Mike’s. I would ask, “What would Michael Jackson say?” Not what would R. Kelly say. And it just felt like Mike would say [Kelly does a spot-on MJ impression], “You are not alone, I am here with you, though you’re far away, I’m here to stay...”
Now an example of you giving away material that seemed perfect for you is Maxwell’s “Fortunate.” When you were penning that song, did you think, Man, I might have to keep this one for myself?
No. And I’ll tell you a quick little story about Maxwell. I had to actually talk him into taking that song. He really wanted to do another song on that Life [soundtrack] album; the title song that K-Ci & JoJo did for the movie. But I was like, “Nope, I don’t believe you did one day of jail, ever.” [Laughs]
“When a Woman’s Fed up” is one of your finest creations. From where did you pull the line, “she was raised in Illinois, right outside of Chicago... some of the best cooking you ever had”?
I knew people would love it. My mother always told me if you write about life you will always be in the game. Just don’t write songs... write life. I decided to take her up on that. That lyric is a part of real life.
Your “Trapped in the Closet” stands as perhaps your most polarizing work. Some critics have called it brilliant, while others have said it’s all laughs with no musical substance. Did you realize it was going to cause such a stir?
You are always going to have the negative and the positive. “Trapped in the Closet” is something I didn’t even expect. It is strange. But if you are going to be called a genius, which again I don’t think of myself as, then you have to [break those barriers]. You can’t hate on that. You have to respect a person willing to sacrifice their career to try something new. You can say a lot about “Trapped in the Closet.” But the one thing you can’t say is it’s not entertaining. And aren’t we in the entertainment business?
You’ve reached triumphant heights, but you’ve also dealt with a very dark period that threatened to end your career. If you could talk to that R. Kelly back in 2002, what would you say to him?
I would say, job well done... Now rise above this. Job well done... Now do better. Job well done... Now move on.
So you don’t regret anything?
I wouldn’t change anything that has happened in my past.
There’s a throwback soul to your latest album. Did you go into this project thinking I want to make an album my mom would love?
Absolutely. I’ve done the sexual songs. But after you do all of these songs you start hearing the younger generation and they’re kind of mimicking what you’ve done. The younger generation of fans are listening to it, while you just retired from your last album, to see what’s going on. So what I decided to do is back up a little bit, switch lanes and do something creative that throws everything off and gives the older generation props. Then I’m going to come back and do what I’m missed for.
Where will your next album, Black Panties, take us?
If you liked 12 Play, and if you liked TP-2 and Chocolate Factory, it’s pretty much all three albums combined.
What is the biggest misconception about R. Kelly?
Shit, you don’t have time. What are you doing next month? [Laughs] I mean there are so many things, because I’m very mysterious to a lot of people because you don’t find me out here or at the awards shows. You don’t see me in the club. And the reason is because I would rather be in the studio mixing these musical potions. Now sometimes they blow up in my face and there’s a lot of smoke. But that’s who I am. Music is what I do.