Critics make some noise
On the eve of R. Kelly's homecoming, TOC's Music staff hashes out his complicated history.
In June 2008, the high-profile indictment of R. Kelly finally ended in his acquittal. The man hardly kept quiet throughout the six-year drama surrounding the child pornography charges against him, releasing a steady barrage of albums; his latest, Untitled, comes out December 1. As the strong showing at Madison Square Garden last month revealed, the trial hasn’t made a dent in the Chicago singer’s devoted fan base. But is it possible to enjoy the artist’s music while ignoring his often lewd behavior? We talked it out in advance of the Pied Piper of R&B’s two-night run at the Auditorium.
Areif Sless-Kitain: There are plenty of comparable examples throughout pop history: Michael Jackson, Chris Brown and, more recently, the deceased John Phillips.
Brent DiCrescenzo: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis…
ASK: The thing about R. Kelly is that he embraces it. This tour is called “Ladies Make Some Noise!”BD: That’s the creepiest thing about him: He’s totally up front about it. After all the court drama, his comeback song is called “Number One.” When you’re accused of pissing on someone, you probably shouldn’t call it that. It’s like Bernie Madoff writing a song called “I Stole Your Money, Bitch!”
ASK: But Kells hasn’t experienced anywhere near the backlash that Chris Brown and Michael Jackson experienced.
BD: It’s almost like, because he was up for sex-related offenses and his music was already sex-related, it gave him credibility in a weird way. Obviously, he isn’t explicitly singing about underage girls, but all his songs are about him being a freak and a pervert. It’s different from Chris Brown, who paints himself as a lover boy when in reality he beat his girlfriend.
ASK: Brown’s reduced to disguising a downgraded club run as a “Fan Appreciation” tour, while Kelly’s added a second night to his homecoming.
BD: Most of Chris Brown’s fans are young since he’s only been around a few years. Kelly has been around for over 15 years and has die-hard fans. When a controversy happens, like with Michael Jackson, the die-hard fans embrace the artist even more.
ASK: Kelly’s ego is like the Energizer Bunny. Nothing keeps the dude down.
BD: I can’t listen to R. Kelly anymore—he’s so blatantly making music about what he was accused of doing. Phil Spector didn’t write an album about killing someone.
ASK: It’s important to keep in mind Kelly’s rags-to-riches background; he continues to cast himself as the underdog. During that MSG show, he boasted this was his first tour since the charges were dropped. There’s this honesty to him that’s almost admirable: He’s not going to hide behind past mistakes.
BD: There are so many reprehensible people in pop music. If you’re going to draw the line, you might as well not listen to it. People are willing to drop Kanye West just because he took a little astronaut from somebody at the MTV Video Music Awards. Everyone is like, “OMG, he’s gone too far.” Well, he didn’t pee on her!
ASK: Race is a huge component in this. If R. Kelly had been accused of peeing on Taylor Swift, people would be up in arms. The fact that Kanye snatched that award from a young white woman makes it this racially charged shitstorm—as demonstrated by the hordes of racists lobbing the N-word around in the aftermath, documented online by “media assassin” Harry Allen.
BD: That R. Kelly keeps making raunchy pop songs is both the smartest and most disgusting aspect of his career. If he were to come out with a ballad saying how sorry he was, people would dismiss him. With Chris Brown, there’s obvious damage control. R. Kelly may lose fans along the way, but he isn’t going to change for anybody.
R. Kelly serenades the Auditorium Theatre Tuesday 17 and Wednesday 18.