Letters To An R&B Contrarian, or: Why R. Kelly Matters

Published on February 11th, 2011 in: Music, Over the Gadfly's Nest, Teh Sex |

By Paul Casey

r kelly THUMB

Dear _____,

How are you? I was pleased to receive your last letter. I am glad that you are proceeding well with your descent into the mire of popular music and that you no longer scoff at the genre of R&B in such an ill conceived and self-satisfied manner. That you can acknowledge you were mistaken to hold that Keane album above “any R&B album of the last twenty years” is something.

I worry though, that you seem to have made most progress with the “Michael McDonald Does Motown” record I somewhat facetiously placed in the care package I sent last month. What of Tresvant? What of Janet and Bobby? You did mention that you had tried to listen to 12 Play and that you had a violent reaction to the content. I think you called him a joke? As I do consider myself your friend for better or worse, I will try to lay out here why it may be wise to reevaluate your opinion.

Defending an individual like R. Kelly and praising his musical gifts is a difficult thing to do, especially if one has to take into account his personal morality and history. The man has always attracted a degree of mockery from the straight critical press, even those who consume his not infrequent hits. It is easy to see why that might be, when you have songs with titles such as “I Like The Crotch On You” and “Feelin’ On Yo Booty.”

I do think, however, you are ignoring the fact that R. Kelly could easily lay claim to being the most important and influential R&B artist of the last two decades. As a producer, writer, and performer he has amassed an incredibly large and impressive body of work. He’s as prolific as Prince and, unlike that fellow you know I have great love for, he has ear unrivaled in terms of knowing what attracts a modern audience.

The first thing that needs asserting is just how damn difficult it is to sing as he does. The intro to “Bump ‘n Grind” is a goddamn workout. To actually be able to sing like that takes years of training, at least a decade or so. Every day focusing on the task of bettering yourself, in a dedication to his instrument similar to what Hendrix or Clapton showed to theirs.

Natural talent is one thing, but reaching the level of vocal sophistication at which R. Kelly excels takes a hell of a lot of effort. He is quite harmonically sophisticated; his chord extensions and voice leading show perhaps more than a passing interest in Jazz. He also has a very good sense of classic Soul, as his work with the Isley Brothers and his recent Love Letter album both show. His live medley at the Soul Train Awards displays his powerful talent and how important he is and has been to the R&B crowd. As does this performance of “Ignition (Remix)” and “Step In the Name of Love” with the Roots. “Ignition (Remix)” is for my money the best single of the 00s.

I don’t know if I would call tracks like “Homie Lover Friend Remix,” the remix for “Your Body’s Callin’,” or the entirety of Aaliyah’s “Age Ain’t Nuthin But A Number,” just “okay R&B songs.” As productions they rival the best work of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis or, if it’s an easier reference for you, Prince or Michael Jackson (they were rocking it up on MTV after all). “Homie Lover Friend Remix” is particularly smooth with cowbell, swirling synths, and beautiful female vocal over the chorus.

r kelly woman video
Photo credit: NY Mag

R. Kelly, as with most prolific artists, has a considerable gap between his best and worst work. As already stated, I don’t personally care for a lot of his more, ahem, spiritual work: “Heaven I Need a Hug,” what the very fuck. Songs like “A Woman’s Threat,” however, show that he can achieve a sincerity of expression that does not have to delve into super-sentimentality or grim expressions of selective religious redemption. Even overtly upbeat songs like “Happy People” show that he can also turn out something that is on the right side of the inspirational/hook ratio.

Your basis for rating R. Kelly as a bit of a joke seems to be less based on his musical acumen or how respected he is within the R&B/Soul world, and more on his image and his sexually direct and often ludicrous lyrics. It’s harder to give him credibility, even against lesser performers, when he contributes lines like “I wanna stick my whole damn head in it” (from “I’m In Love With A Stripper”).

That he has a strange sense of humor has been verified; that he is a deviant is beyond any reasonable doubt. Yet lyrically forthright, sex-obsessed, ever so embarrassing lyrics have been the basis for many Rock & Roll greats (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley) as well as R&B, Soul, and Funk greats (Marvin Gaye, George Clinton, James Brown, Prince). This is undeniable. Had Marvin Gaye lived a little longer, I feel that “You Sure Love To Ball” and its orgasm sounds and pleading to “Stop beating around the bush” would have become a more common element in his music.

Seeing as how I have previously raised the issue of Lauryn Hill’s dubious political statements and eccentric nature to you, it is fair that you raise the issue of Kelly’s. His alleged transgressions—which should almost certainly have seen him imprisoned by now—are a mark against him as a person, though they hardly discount him from being an artist worthy of discussion. Despite Phil Spector’s murderous ways, Michael Jackson’s various oddities (he respected and valued R. Kelly’s talent greatly, by the way), and Elvis Presley’s peccadilloes (he met his wife when she was 14), there is still the uncomfortable fact that all contributed an incredible amount to popular music of the 20th Century.

Perhaps R.Kelly can’t quite sell his deviancy in the way that Prince has done or perhaps he is too convincing. He has turned out enough hits, had enough impact on other talented people, and has received enough respect from true legends of Soul and R&B to warrant consideration. There is more to this discussion than the absurdity of Trapped In the Closet.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (the one R&B album you seem to be able to digest) is a damn good album, as I have told you many times. It is, however, not inappropriate to state in contrast to your fairly flippant dismissal of the work of R. Kelly, that he has done more and contributed more to R&B and Soul than Lauryn Hill could ever hope to at this point in her career. She has pissed her talent away while the skill and work ethic of Kelly should get some credit, considering he has stayed on top for about two decades now.

So please do not allow the simplistic, sexual nature of R. Kelly’s lyrics to hide the accomplished arrangements, the demanding vocal performances, or the beautiful melodies which wrap around his undimmed production skills.

Can you dig it?


One Response to “Letters To An R&B Contrarian, or: Why R. Kelly Matters”

  1. Mel:
    February 11th, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    THIS IS TRUE. So many are unable to separate a musician’s musical accomplishments from their personalities. Also, listeners should be able to discern technical ability regardless of genre. I’m not sure why so many critics are snotty about R&B, maybe it’s a class/race/sub-cultural thing. Thanks for the article 🙂

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