Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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R. Kelly
R. Kelly R. Kelly R. Kelly R. Kelly

God help any crazy stalker with intentions to get to R Kelly; they’d have their work cut out.  This man has more schedule changes than a low-cost airline bound for Ibiza. “I do hate to do interviews,” he  tells me later when we finally meet. No shit Kellz?

The first time we’re supposed to convene, after several proposed dates have already been postponed - I’m literally about to board the plane at Gatwick when the phone call comes - “It’s off,” I’m told. Both Kelly and I had  been en-route to Las Vegas where he was to attend an international press junket, host a playback of his new album ‘Double Up’ and perform at a conference for his record label bosses. However, halfway between  his hometown of Chicago and Sin City, he heard about the Virginia Tech massacre and was compelled to turn the bus round so he could go back home and write a song. The result, out this August, was ‘Rise Up’ a  typically schmaltzy key-changing R. Kelly affair, in the vein of  ‘Heaven I Need a Hug’ and ‘I Believe I Can Fly’: “We will cry  together, we’ll fight this together/ We’ll be strong together, stand together, pray together...” And so on.

Anyway, after a couple more tries, I finally make it to Chi-Town, the city where he was born, raised and continues to reside today. I’ve already been asked to submit my questions, none of which, of course, must mention his ongoing legal situation relating to the 14 counts of child pornography that he was first charged with back in 2002. I must also not ask about his wife (they separated after she accused him of  domestic abuse), Jay-Z (well, we all know about that one), his  brother Carey (he claims Robert offered him $50,000 and a record  contract to take the fall for the sex tapes), Sparkle (she told an LA radio station that the girl in the tapes that featured the man that  bears very close resemblance to R Kelly, is her niece) and finally Aaliyah - again, pretty self-explanatory given the whole underage marriage thing. I did consider wearing my Aaliyah T-shirt to the interview, but thought better of it.

16 years in the game, and, as the album says, the R is ready to ‘double up’ again. “The title can mean a million things; you have the basketball reference, the gambling connotation,” he smiles behind pitch-black shades. “My coach used to tell me, when you’re up 20, you need to play like you’re down 20. I told you I feel hungrier than I’ve ever been, and it's true, so I feel it’s time for me to do it all over again... let's do another 16 years. I’ve no plans to retire, I’m on top of my game right now.” He’s not exaggerating either. Two weeks after our meeting, his 14th solo album enters the American Billboards at No.1 and the UK charts at number 10; he sells 400,000 in the US alone in one week. Given the current climate of the music industry, this is incredibly impressive. And, one of two duds aside, the album is indeed worth the money. There are club bangers, a couple of slowies and some fantastically odd tracks like ‘The Zoo ‘and ‘Sex Planet’: “I got you so wet, it’s like a rain-forest/ Like Jurassic Park except I’m ya sexosaurus.” he wails on ‘The Zoo’ with its ‘Ohh-ohh-ah-ah-ah’ monkey-mimicking chorus, while the latter makes Carry On-style references to ‘black holes’ and ‘Uranus.’ Is he, for want of a better phrase, taking the piss? “Ya know, I sometimes feel like people take what I write a little too seriously, but I do think that I have a lot of humour in my  music,” chuckles the 6’1 singer who really got back in the game after releasing the hilarious ‘Trapped In The Closet’ series last year. “I want people to laugh, because it’s like I’m a musical comedian on some songs. Anybody that gets that, I can really appreciate, because it makes it fun. I believe that’s why people listen to, and love, R. Kelly’s work, because there are a lot of goodies in the lyrics.”

Today though, he’s more interested in discussing the song ‘Real Talk’. An invective-laden one-way conversation between Kelly and a girlfriend, the track is particularly timely given the  ongoing argument between people like Oprah Winfrey and 50 Cent about the appropriateness of artists using the ‘N’, bitch and ho words. This is something Robert Sylvester Kelly feels strongly about. In fact, he spends about a third of our 24-minute conversation telling me just why he should be free to use whatever words he pleases.

“Number one, I’m a grown man. It’s a reality and that reality is actually much worse than ‘Real Talk’. We have got to realise that this is the real world; there are no aliens down here. We’re all human; everybody, or most people, have had that argument, I feel. They didn’t try to mute their words while they was arguing; they didn’t put they hand over they mouth at the time they wanted to curse. These things have gone on in cars, on phones, in drive-throughs and in movie theatres. I’ve experienced it, I know a lot of  people that have too, even the ones that don’t approve of it.”

The track features Kelly’s jealous girlfriend accusing him of cheating before threatening to leave him: “Bitch, I wish you would burn my motherfucking clothes’ he shouts in the middle of the track. But is there need for such a large amount of profanity, Kellz? “I  didn’t just go into the studio and say ‘I know, today I’ll write a  curse song; bitch, slut, bitch, n*gga, ho.’ I don’t do that,” he  argues. “I go in with a creative mind and spirit and I let creativity come to me, I don’t chase it. I’m a grown man and I realise in this world that words are exchanged, even when we’re not writing a song or making a movie.”

He seems particularly annoyed that films and videogames don’t get given the same censorious treatment. And let's be real, it is always rappers and R&B singers (that's black artists) who seem to get the stick, right? “Absolutely, I agree with that. That’s real talk, that’s the way it is," he offers animatedly. "If they can say it in movie theatres, and on talk shows, why should I stop? You can have kids playing games where they’re doing all types of stuff. Yet, I’m only expressing myself and my freedom of speech in my own, creative way. Why is it such a no-no,” he wonders rhetorically, warming to his subject now. “My situation is, or should be, no different from the movies you see, I simply express life. I think if I can’t use the word 'shit', nobody should be able to use the word 'shit'  because I’m 40 and I’m a grown man. I feel if that can’t be used in a song, then it can’t be used in a movie 'cos the way I grew up, that’s  called unfair. And my mom taught me that, so if you’re trying to teach me different at 40, you’re disrespecting everything my mom has taught me from a kid on up, and I’m not gonna allow you to disrespect my momma with all the hard work she put in on raising me.”

So, he’s feeling good, right? "Honestly,” he concludes. “I feel like I’m in a media minefield, so I just keep my butt in the  studio. Being in the studio is almost like taking a vacation for me. As my kids grow up, I want them to be proud of me. If I can be in the  game like Ron Isley here, then I’m good.” And with that, R Kelly and  his mate Ron depart. It’s time to return to hit-making.

‘Double Up’ is out now.
The single ‘Rise Up’ is out in August.

Words Hattie Collins

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