R. Kelly Needs To Get Back To The ‘Bump N’ Grind,’ In Bigger Than The Sound

Does embattled R&B singer realize people are no longer laughing with him?

On The Record: An Open Letter To R. Kelly

Dear Robert,

I don’t know what’s going on with you lately. Maybe your mind is elsewhere (or maybe, you know, elsewhere ), but things have changed. The magical sparkle between us is gone. And I don’t know if we can ever get it back.

See, I used to love you. I mean love you. 12 Play was amazing. “Bump N’ Grind” was seriously revelatory stuff; “Sex Me” was too, honestly. And I always admired the directness of “I Like the Crotch on You.” You looked like a streetwise koala on the cover of TP-2.COM, which sort of made come-ons like “Put your arms around me/ I’m feelin’ on your booty” all the more incredible. And it didn’t stop there. “Ignition (Remix),” “Happy People,” that video that has Ronald Isley’s thugs beating you up and leaving you shoeless in the desert — it was all brilliant, all light years more interesting than the schlock being dished out by your R&B contemporaries at the time.

It was the kind of stuff that made me wonder if you weren’t just the tiniest bit insane — in the best possible way of course. You were like some sort of mixture of Sly Stone, Cecil B. DeMille and Blowfly — the kind of super-talented, super-swaggering entertainers who never believed they had a bad idea and, as such, carried each and every song, notion and film out to their fullest potential.

Still, it seems that ever since the child-porn charges first broke (which was, at the time of this writing, nearly five years ago), you’ve sort of delighted in enraging your detractors by flitting back and forth between a pair of yin-yang personas: the pariah (2004′s Happy People/ U Saved Me) and the pervert (just about everything else). This makes it more and more difficult to separate the man from the music, a notion that reached its zenith when I first laid my eyes on the cover of your TP.3 Reloaded album, a triumph of both ego and Photoshopping skills.

And, of course, that was before I heard anything from the album.

See, in case you didn’t know (and how could you not, since, uh, you recorded it), Reloaded concludes with the first five chapters of “Trapped in the Closet,” the hookless, overdramatic serial that — thanks to the (un?)intentionally bad acting and even worse production values of the accompanying video — took on a life of its own, eventually becoming a rather zesty slice of our hyper-ironic cultural pie. And also, whether you meant it to or not, “Trapped” also managed to turn you into more of a punch line than the semi-serious swagger, the loverman shtick and the 14 counts of child pornography combined.

Even I’ll cop to enjoying the first few chapters of the “Closet” story and thinking some of the choices you made were brave (i.e. you made the gay character, Chuck, as normal as anyone else in the serial, which in the ultra-manly world of R&B was a bold decision). But then I watched subsequent “Trapped” chapters, the ones filled with goofy accents and cops chasing vertically challenged male strippers around a kitchen. It wasn’t clever anymore. Wasn’t mind-blowing or bizarre … it was just sort of dumb. And, wow. That was about it for me.

Sadly, that wasn’t it for you. You were back with another double album, Double Up, which, predictably, was greeted by most of the snickering masses with something along the lines of, “Oh, here’s another bunch of funny songs from the ‘Trapped in the Closet’ guy!” And then — inexplicably — the news of even more episodes of “Trapped,” which would be screened on IFC.com (in a non-ironic, non-tittering way, of course).

When the first chapters began debuting last week, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the clever wordplay and bold characters were gone, replaced instead with jokes about “fish with t—–s” and you in a fat suit with cotton balls stuck to your face (not to mention you as an afroed preacher man or you as a stuttering pimp). It had moved beyond camp into song-and-dance vaudevillian lunacy. And, of course, they paired you with a bespectacled, smirking hipster of a host, IFC’s Matt Singer, who, in between updating his blog, managed to (barely, and most annoying of all, knowingly) titter his way through some perfunctory chit-chat with you while looking about as comfortable as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.

It’s weird and unsettling, and it made me feel that maybe for the first time in your career, you no longer realize that the people aren’t laughing with you. That thought, coupled with the prospect of you unspooling the new “Trapped” for the entertainment of bloggers and silver-spoon hipsters, makes me feel uncomfortable in the same way the trailer for “Resident Evil 5″ does. It’s not a good look, Robert.

Of course, maybe you don’t care. Maybe you’re operating on a level that I’m not, one in which being known as the ultra-horny court jester isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Or perhaps you’ve actually gone crazy. But I’d like to think you’re smarter than that. After all, you’re the guy who once attended the Grammys dressed as a velvety Zorro, the guy behind “Sex in the Kitchen.” Whatever happened to that guy? I miss him.

Your pal,
James

B-Sides: Other Stories I’m Following This Week

Bow Wow and Omarion: a combined 8 feet of R&B bravado (see “Bow Wow, Omarion Talk Relationship Rumors — With Rihanna, Ciara — And Their Friendship” ).

Sharon Jones can out-smoke, out-drink and out-sing Amy Winehouse any day of the week … and that’s saying something (see “Sharon Jones Is Finally In The Spotlight — Thanks To Amy Winehouse Stealing Her Band” ).

Ryan Reynolds as the Flash is a bad idea at both normal and superhuman speeds (see ” ‘The Flash’ Isn’t Happening? Not So Fast, Ryan Reynolds Says … “ )

Questions? Concerns? Robert? Hit me up at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.