By Paul Casey
Michael Jackson was responsible for my first musical memory. Thriller, Bad, and Dangerous were the first albums which were as important as my miniature Batmobile, and that thing was pretty boss. Moonwalker, which was mostly quite bad, did have the great benefit of featuring an extended version of the “Smooth Criminal” video in between weird claymation sections and Joe Pesci as an evil Joe Pesci. This was directly responsible for fueling a life long, and probably ill advised, love for performance. Michael Jackson was a pure expression of not only a severe musical talent, but of the thought that it may be possible to dance so well that verbal communication would no longer be necessary.
For an introverted young sort, and later a socially anxious older sort, Michael Jackson’s music was a reminder that sometimes you just have to get out there and lay it down. Whether this is a groove, some excessive vamping, or a tricky foot shuffle, even the most egregious wallflower has to step up when “The Way You Make Me Feel” comes on. “I Can’t Let Her Get Away” insists that you get into a New Jack Swing, whether you are aware of Teddy Riley or not. “Human Nature” still brings on tears.
Michael Jackson led me to Prince. As I have talked about before on Popshifter, his particular line on sexuality was helpful to an awkward teenage human. Not just for his deviant, taboo-breaking comedic bits, like “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” “Feel U Up,” and the entire Dirty Mind album, but for those songs which allowed for complicated emotions to be wrapped around vocal workouts like “Adore” or the supremely atmospheric “When 2 R In Love.”
Like Michael, Prince was and is a consummate performer. He was more inclined to provoke though: black underwear, a trench coat, and an ejaculating guitar were a likely part of early Prince concerts. Prince had a confidence which not only allowed him to do these kinds of things—sometimes resulting in violent reactions from the crowd—but eventually to alter public opinion in such a way that made it easier for outsiders to find their place. This is the dream for any creator. Even in seemingly ridiculous or obscene songs like “Le Grind” or “Come” there is liberation. “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” as well as most songs credited to Camille, subvert gender roles and champion unusual love.
My most recent R&B obsession is R. Kelly. It is easy to see why a love of both Michael Jackson and Prince would prepare me to love Kells. Like Michael and Prince, R. Kelly has a measure of weird contradictions and dubious personal behavior. He is also however one of the most talented R&B musicians in the last two decades, and probably the most important.
To assume that all R. Kelly has to offer is shocking frankness, or brilliantly camp epics like “Trapped In The Closet,” is to fail to see a talent on the level of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and of course, Prince. A keen ear will also discover that “I Like The Crotch On You” and “Feelin’ On Yo’ Booty” are still the exception, rather than the rule. While motivation may be a foolish thing to look for, it is at least clear that these were not songs which R. Kelly approached straight-faced.
Most of the time when things get dirty, it is in songs with beautifully layered productions, and like Prince are better considered as extremely honest love songs. They are nighttime soundtracks. “Bump N Grind,” in both its original and gloriously smooth remix, expresses the absurdity and unusual meaning to be found in base physical activity.
As instinctual expression of the meaning in remaining alive and engaging with other humans, R. Kelly is as hooked in and switched on as any of the legends mentioned above. Those denigrating the joys of fucking, or the inherent life affirmation in dancing not only betray their own glum personal situation, but also denigrate the basis of every important musical genre of the last hundred years. Rock ‘n Roll, Pop, Blues, R&B, Soul, Funk and hell, even Jazz are more than anything else ways to make you feel your own body and if you’re lucky, someone else too.
“Homie Lover Friend Remix,” as well as a surprising amount of R. Kelly’s songs, is about friendship and that feeling which turns bad vomit nights into an excuse for human connection. It is also one of the greatest tracks in 1990s R&B, with the smoothest of productions and creation of a mood that very few musicians can attain.
Although it may be a surprise to the snobs who were amazed that R. Kelly could produce something like Love Letter, Kells has been doing Old School/New School hybrids since “Honey Love.” “Loveland,” from the EP of the same name, is one of his best Marvin Gaye inspired tracks. “What Do I Do,” also from Loveland, might be his single greatest song.
Even on the 12 Play albums—which are generally coarser and sillier than the rest—there are some startlingly beautiful tracks. “I Don’t Mean It” from TP-2.com has an unearthly hook and performance. As well as the entire Happy People album—”If I Could Make the World Dance” is a wonderful follow up to “Loveland”—Chocolate Factory features many songs that go right back to classic R&B and Soul. “Dream Girl” is something which Michael Jackson could have easily performed at his peak.
Michael Jackson worked with R. Kelly on several occasions. Most notably on “You Are Not Alone,” which was recorded for HIStory, the song “Cry” from Michael’s final album Invincible, and the single “One More Chance.” R. Kelly was greatly respected as a producer, arranger, composer, and performer by unarguably one of the most important musicians of the 20th Century. When Michael Jackson thinks your hooks are incredible—check out “Ignition”—then it is a fair indication that you are pretty good.
Even though I have a serious investment in folks like Brian Wilson and Bob Dylan, nothing has ever made me feel more human than R&B, Funk, and Soul. They turn the listener into a performer and are able to turn an isolated sort into something that basically functions. These genres are uniquely positioned to plug you into the basic elements of being human and replace shame and insecurity with joy.
A listen to “Hard To Handle” by Otis Redding will give you the ability to walk into any social gathering with dignity. Funkadelic’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” will remind you that your limbs are yours and you can move them any way you damn well want. “Something about the music, it got into my pants!” Stevie Wonder, in so many songs can get you up and get you off and touch your heart. “Living For the City” gives some perspective and is a partner through hard times. “All Day Sucker” gives unhealthy relationships a purpose. Sam Cooke, from his days with Soul Stirrers to the purveyor of some of the finest love songs of all time, pushes you to trust more and get involved. If for no other reason than you need to understand “Bring It On Home To Me” from the inside.
Here is a Spotify playlist that features some songs that will help you become human. It is reproduced below for those unable to access Spotify.
1. Shout – The Isley Brothers
2. Uptight (Everything’s Alright) – Stevie Wonder
3. Dance To The Music – Sly & The Family Stone
4. Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) – The Jackson 5
5. September – Earth, Wind & Fire
6. Bustin’ Out (On Funk) – Rick James
7. Hard To Handle – Otis Redding
8. Bring It On Home To Me – Sam Cooke
9. What Do I Do – R. Kelly
10. Adore – Prince
11. Let’s Stay Together – Al Green
12. Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) – The Temptations
13. Please, Please, Please – James Brown
14. I’ve Been Watching You (Move Your Sexy Body) – Parliament
15. The Way You Make Me Feel – Michael Jackson
16. When You Were Mine – Prince
17. What Have You Done For Me Lately – Janet Jackson
18. Street Thing – Aaliyah
19. Sensitivity – Ralph Tresvant
20. Bump N Grind (Old School Mix) – R. Kelly
21. Feel U Up – Prince
22. Jerk Out – The Time
23. (Not Just) Knee Deep – Funkadelic
24. Living For The City – Stevie Wonder
25. Can’t Let Her Get Away – Michael Jackson
26. No Diggity – Blackstreet
27. This Is How We Do It – Montell Jordan
28. Motownphilly – Boyz II Men
29. Girlfriend – N-Sync
30. Untitled (How Does It Feel) – D’Angelo
The Songs That Will Also Make You Human
31. Try a Little Tenderness – Otis Redding
32. Please Stay (Once You Go Away) – Marvin Gaye
33. You Send Me – Sam Cooke
34. Baby Love – The Supremes
35. At Your Best (You Are Love) – Aaliyah
36. Between The Sheets – The Isley Brothers
37. Freek’n You – Jodeci
38. Shake Ya Ass – Mystikal
39. Work It Out – Beyonce
40. Slow Jamz – Kanye West, Jamie Foxx & Twista
41. My Love – Justin Timberlake
42. Tightrope – Janelle Monae
43. Confessions Part II – Usher
44. I Don’t Mean It – R. Kelly
45. Novacane – Frank Ocean