Three weeks ago, I stood in a room and watched R. Kelly ask a vagina for its hand in marriage.
Down on one knee, clad in black leather and a single gold rope chain, the biggest R&B star of the past two decades mugged with exaggeration for reporters' cameras (and an invisible vagina), as he mimed along with the words sung by the speakers in the control room of a midtown recording studio: "Wanna go down on my knees, and ask that pussy to marry me."
This was at Platinum Studios, located just a block or two from Times Square, where R. Kelly performed for a small group of press in the highly-controlled atmosphere of a Black Panties listening session on Tuesday, November 12, 2013.
R. Kelly speaks softly, very politely: asked who would like something to drink, and made sure plastic cups of Hennessy were passed around. He said that his new album, Black Panties, was "the new 12Play," a reference to his widely acclaimed solo debut, and lip synced a performance of the album (minus the singles and bonus tracks) for us, interjecting stories in between each track, answering questions, and generally being a friendly, gracious host.
At one point, he broke into an as-yet-unreleased acapella poem. It's as blunt and uncensored as any of his songs, that includes an eyebrow-raising kidnapping metaphor. The poem's final line was "My lyrics got a big dick and I just fucked the shit out of y’all." Everyone laughed.
Who's not going to send a tweet about how they just watched R. Kelly drop to his knees and propose to female genitalia?
After another song, he talked about devotion. And how, if his interest in a woman isn't reciprocated, "I’ll stalk you." No one laughed. We all looked around uncomfortably. "It’s a joke," he said after the pregnant pause. Then everyone laughed again.
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Listening sessions are strange, publicist-crafted spectacles designed to promote a product. Under the illusion of reportage—after all, we are hearing this new, un-leaked, unheard material—magazine staff pile in and report on an event, giving the brief illusion of access—in our case, we found out that we'd get a photo with R. Kelly, and the opportunity to ask two questions in a room full of other people.
And of course, anyone who meets R. Kelly is going to tweet about it, which is presumably the upside for the artist. In the social media era, the "event" functionally becomes just another piece of promotion. After all, who's not going to send a tweet about how they just watched R. Kelly drop to his knees and propose to female genitalia?
This isn’t a new or especially novel take, of course, on listening sessions. But the public fascination with R. Kelly’s apparent eccentricity makes him a prime candidate for this kind of marketing. It also makes that mythical idea of access even more alluring. After all, R. Kelly is truly an enigma. And he's one people have been wrangling with for years. One of the first major profiles of R. Kelly—Danyel Smith’s 1994 Vibe profile—grappled with the contradictions and complications of R. Kelly’s art. News of his marriage to a then-underage Aaliyah had recently broken; Cautious, his publicists ensured that Smith would write the profile without a primary interview.
The same issues wrestled with by Smith in Vibe would only continue to play themselves out on a larger stage going forward. The full, lurid history of R. Kelly’s extracurricular activities (so as not to beat around the bush: he’s been accused of statutory rape on multiple occasions, though never convicted) have been collected and enumerated here. Interestingly, the time-line also includes quotes from critics, who have generally warmed to his music over the years, even as listeners became more aware of the depth and severity of his crimes. One obvious reason is that the aesthetics of '90s R&B have become more accepted. Another is that he's been exceedingly successful, an artist of proven longevity.
Every time he appears in the news, we end up with another wave of analysis. He's been clowned on Dave Chappelle, and the phenomenon of his popularity broken down on The Boondocks. He's the subject of hundreds of essays. This time around is no different. The range of reactions to his music and his behavior go from uncritical, blithe giddiness to hard-line resistance: "At least for responsible and/or semi-literate adults," argues Akiba Solomon of Colorlines, "There has to be a code we live by. A code that says that when some people make art, even really enjoyable art, we shouldn’t support it."
Not to fall into a can bad people make good art? trap, because history is proof. And I'm not about to stop listening to Miles Davis or Led Zeppelin or Michael Jackson or R. Kelly. On the flip side, I won't begrudge anyone who feels obligated to vote with their wallets and say, you know what, this isn't someone I feel like deserves my attention or support.
But it never really felt like an option, to reject or endorse him, because R. Kelly has been a part of the oxygen for so long. And far more interesting to wrestle with (metaphorically, guys...come on) as a phenomenon than to ignore. Now that R. Kelly—like R&B as an entire genre—sits closer to the margins of the pop charts, rather than dominating Top 40, it can be difficult to appreciate how much a part of the air around us he actually is. I grew up in and around Kelly's hometown of Chicago. There were the stories of him hanging out at the Rock 'n' Roll McDonalds parking lot, on the near North Side, not far from his studio. My middle school graduation ceremony included a class singalong to "I Believe I Can Fly." Parties in high school were punctuated by "Fiesta." By college, it was "Ignition (Remix)."
But the full breadth of his talents weren't evident to me until later, because one essential dimension of his music is how it approaches sex. And, naturally, as a young kid, that wasn't an aspect of life I could relate to. Slow jams weren't sexy; they were boring. What became clear later was that the way R. Kelly was about sex was especially...well...evocative. He's known for being so eccentric and strange, but the real appeal of his music isn't that it's unusually weird. Its weirdness isn't the point—it's a byproduct of his vulnerability, his lack of self-censorship. The real reason R. Kelly's weirdness appeals is because there is a freedom in the way R. Kelly lets it all hang out.
Think about any time a politician has been caught sexting. The content of those texts pretty much all seems absurd. At least, the few that I've seen. Typically, I find them very difficult to read. The embarrassment levels are off the charts, reading Anthony Weiner's sexts—something so private transformed into an open transcript is wince-inducing. But it's universal. From the outside, pretty much every single intimate conversation on earth likely seems ridiculous and embarrassing: they require a narcissism of the moment.
But when you're in the moment, of course, it doesn't.
At their best, R. Kelly's bedroom-oriented songs capture the unembarrassed ridiculousness of the human mating call, without taking you out of the moment.
At their best, R. Kelly's bedroom-oriented songs capture the unembarrassed ridiculousness of the human mating call, without taking you out of the moment. In order for the ridiculousness to work, it needs to feel serious. After all, that's part of what makes it so ridiculous. R. Kelly's musical talent provides a libidinous backdrop that is missing from a bunch of out-of-context sexts. It is about the banishment of self-consciousness, enabling listeners to get lost in the moment—to escape the anxiety and neuroses and responsibilities required of us every minute of every day, to be lost completely outside of ourselves.
R. Kelly's career makes a compelling argument that accessible, populist entertainment, work that is 100% devoid of pretense, is still a completely potent pathway for great art. Sure, he has flirted with bourgeois tastefulness—2010's Love Letter was a tribute to the soul greats of the past, his muse the respect afforded to history. But as soon as it was out of his system, he returned to his unapologetically prurient roots, no doubt confounding those who thought he'd finally found maturity. The strongest moments on Black Panties are sexually direct, so much so that they make other R&B feel overly mannered, if not dishonest.
Black Panties is an album focused on the sexual dynamic within Kells' music, and it is successful sometimes, and less so others. The most easily dismissed: Kells' unsurprisingly detail-free "My Story" ("I beat the pussy/Django..."). Banal of-the-moment rap collaborations with Jeezy and DJ Mustard, or Migos and Juicy J. "Right Back" is like a 21st-century "Back to the Hood of Things." Easy to fault for trend-hopping or fulfilling a generic type.
Evaluating the rest of the record is a little trickier, and relies more on how much leeway you're willing to give him. The more conservative songs often pull off the effect better than you'd expect. The hook on "Physical" might be a lovemaking cliche, but R&B is all about "selling the cliche." The sparse performance has a back-arching eroticism, its use of space a harrowing replication of the vulnerability of intimacy. Likewise, "Lights On" and "Crazy Sex" are conceptually straightforward, but have a particular slow jam power: intensity suspended in place and time.
The demand that the ludicrous and the serious co-exist in R. Kelly's best work also requires a particular balance. Some work the middle: "Throw This Money On You" is pretty hilarious, but its simmering slow grind is sold with complete sincerity.
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One of the label's employees, or perhaps a PR person, overheard after the session: "Is it too much?"
Member of the press: "It's R. Kelly, it can never be too much."
The irony, the knowledge that Kelly knows how ridiculous and over-the-top he's being, pulls you away from the music. You're forced to view it, or hear it, experience it, from a distance.
As spectacle, this is probably true. If it's what you're looking for.
At certain points, it's difficult not to feel like the absurdity is starting to feel a little forced. Wanting to eat a girl like an Oreo. Proposing to a vagina. Like a caricature drawing of what R. Kelly is about, the songs lose their functionality by refusing to let you be lost within them. Instead, the irony, the knowledge that Kelly knows how ridiculous and over-the-top he's being, pulls you away from the music. You're forced to view it, or hear it, experience it, from a distance. The text is underlined, bound by exclamation points and capital letters. R. Kelly, self-aware of his role, veers towards self-parody. These songs are undeniably entertaining, at least at first. They lack functionality, though, and sometimes suffer for replay.
"Cookie" rides this balance most precariously, at once completely absurd and unforgettable. You can try to resist. But more often than not, R. Kelly doesn't just sell the cliche; he sells its caricature as well.
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At the end of the session, I stood in line with the rest of the press, each of us ready to ask our allotted two questions. It was a strange environment, one that emphasized the falseness of the conversation. R. Kelly was performing for us, answering diplomatically. He's a professional, and he was doing a good job. He speaks softly, politically, a shield up. There's no chance to really connect. When it was my turn, I asked about the Birdman/R. Kelly album that was rumored scrapped in the mid-00s. He answered briefly, talking about the possibility of future collaborations, rather than the past.
His answer to the other question was as canned as the first, and as diplomatic.
"Do you ever find yourself coming across stuff that you’re like, 'No, that’s too weird, I can’t do that.' You’ve got a song like 'Marry The Pussy,' or 'Echo,' with the yodeling. I love that song. But are you ever at that point where you’re like, 'That’s too much. I can’t make that work...'?"
"No, I’ve never been at that point, man. I’m very thankful for that. Music is supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to feel good. It’s supposed to make you go through emotional changes, to either stay with somebody or get rid of somebody. Or do something good, or just retire from something that you’re tired of dealing with. Music is very emotional. So I’m glad that I’m able to be fun with my music, funny with my music, it’s comical, it’s sexy, and it makes you want to party. It’s a blessing to even have that kind of gift. A lot of people out here just got one way, and that’s what they do. So I’m just glad to be able to go in these different genres and have fun with my music."