Robert Sylvester Kelly calls himself the R. in R&B, and he has earned the title. It is impossible to delve into the genre’s history during the past two decades without acknowledging R. Kelly’s music, debating his influence, or dealing with his personal history and how that affects his legacy.
But that doesn’t make navigating his catalog easy. Kellz has released 14 albums, including two collaborations with Jay-Z (the Best of Both Worlds misadventure, which led to a falling-out between the onetime friends and eventually lawsuits) and three double-albums. He’s also produced tracks for dozens of artists; his most famous freelance assignment was mentoring (and allegedly romancing) the late songbird Aaliyah for her 1993 debut Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. And let’s not forget that the self-proclaimed Pied Piper continues to crank out installments of his crazy R&B soap opera Trapped in the Closet for YouTube and cable TV consumption, with 23 episodes to date. The result is a towering mountain of urban pop singles, babymaker ballads, inspirational hymns and hip-hop collabos that can make the most committed acolyte take pause.
So where to begin in the world of R. Kelly? While he’s made several good albums, he has yet to record a singular, all-time classic that any casual listener can turn to. So the best bet is to get acquainted via his excellent 2003 compilation The R. in R&B Collection, Volume 1. And when you’re ready to dig deeper (sometime before his headlining spot at Pitchfork Music Festival sounds right), here are a few dominant themes to focus on.
The Sex God
No one does banging-the-headboard, wet-the-bed love ballads better than Kelly. Of all his albums, 1992’s 12 Play is the one his fans love the most, and it’s largely due to incredibly passionate slow jams like “Bump ‘N Grind,” “Your Body’s Callin’,” “Sex Me,” “It Seems Like You’re Ready” and “For You.” (Its success inspired two sort-of sequels, 2000’s TP-2.com and 2005’s TP.3 Reloaded.) On 1995’s “You Remind Me of Something,” he rapturously compares a fine girl to a jeep (“I wanna ride it), his beats (“I wanna bump it”), his car (“I wanna wax it”), and his bank account (“I wanna spend it”). “Half on a Baby” from 1998’s R. taps into his belief that sex is a metaphysical endeavor. But he’s not afraid to get nasty, either. On 2007’s “Sex Planet,” he drops eye-rolling double-entendres like “Girl I promise this will be painless/ We’ll take a trip to planet Uranus.”
The Drama King
Years before the-Dream and the Weeknd drove alternative R&B kids nuts with their sardonic lyrics, Kelly excelled at poking fun with his deliriously overwrought ballads. On “When a Woman’s Fed Up,” he sings “With all the things I put her through, I shouldn’t have lasted this long/Now I’m at the telephone, calling Tyrone,” a wink-wink reference to Erykah Badu’s infamous shot at deadbeat boyfriends, “Tyrone.” And he ends by singing, “She was raised in Illinois, right outside of Chicago/ Some of the best cooking you ever had, yes it was.”
Then there’s his suite of songs with Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers. With Kelly creepin’ on the wife of “Mr. Biggs,” a gangland style mobster that threatens to “catch a case” when he finds out, the duo spun their drama through 1995’s “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)” (and its popular video co-starring Gabrielle Beauvais as Biggs’ wife), the “Down Low (Live to Regret It/Blame It On The Mo)” remix, Kelly Price’s 1998 single “Friend Of Mine (Remix)” (with R. Kelly as Price’s cheating husband and Mr. Biggs as her father), and the Isley Brothers’ 2001 single “Contagious” (and another great video, this time with the beautiful quiet storm vocalist Chante Moore as the wife). The storyline grew stale by 2003’s “Showdown,” but overall the “Mr. Biggs” saga is more concise and entertaining than the bloated Trapped in the Closet series.
One of Kelly’s biggest hits is 1998’s “I Can Believe I Can Fly,” a ballad that exhorts us to soar in the sky … like Michael Jordan. (It’s from the soundtrack for Jordan’s inexplicably popular Space Jam movie.) His number-one duet with Celine Dion from that same year, “I’m Your Angel,” proved he’s not immune to adult contemporary sap. He’s occasionally dabbled in gospel, from the second half of the double-album Happy People/U Saved Me to 2000’s “The Storm Is Over Now” and 2003’s “Heaven I Need a Hug.” Then there are his tributes to Muhammad Ali (“The World’s Greatest”), the victims of Hurricane Katrina (“Let Your Light Shine”), the victims of the Virginia Tech mass shooting (“Rise Up”), and even the 2010 World Cup (“Sign of a Victory”). In January, he released “I Know You Are Hurting,” a song benefiting the victims of the Newtown, Massachusetts shooting tragedy. Though these songs may be too earnest for the average secular heathen, they find Kelly at his most spiritually inspired.
The Superstar Producer
Credit R. Kelly for fusing the funky-worm melodies of Dr. Dre’s G-funk with the plush bass notes of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and then spreading his innovations through '90s R&B classics like Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place (remix),” Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” Changing Faces’ “Stroke You Up,” and the Isley Brothers’ “Mission to Please You.” Blaque’s “808” is a marvelous example of the coquettish girl-group R&B typical of that decade. His soundtrack for the 1998 Eddie Murphy-Martin Lawrence comedy Life is often overlooked, but it yielded strong tunes such as K-Ci & Jo-Jo’s “Life,” Maxwell’s “Fortunate” and City High’s “What Would You Do?”
The new millennium hasn’t been as fruitful, but he’s made standouts like B2K’s “Bump Bump Bump,” Ginuwine’s “In Those Jeans,” and Syleena Johnson’s “Guess What.” His work on teenage girl-group JS’ 2003 album Ice Cream flopped, but its title track is worth seeking out. Notably, he produced “One More Chance,” the last song Michael Jackson released during his lifetime; as well as the late Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks’ “Celebrate” from the Sparkle soundtrack.
The R&B Thug
Let’s be honest. Most of contemporary R&B is either about sex in the bedroom, or heavy petting at the nightclub. While Kellz’ best '90s tracks are drenched in pre-coital pillow talk, his biggest hits in the 2000s celebrate the good life, whether it’s “Feelin’ on Your Booty” during a slow grind, or declaring “I’m a Flirt” over a bouncy track. “It’s like ‘murder she wrote’ once I get you out them clothes,” he promises on “Ignition” from 2003’s Chocolate Factory, which is the best document of his clubbin’ period.
A closely linked theme to Kelly’s bad-boy shenanigans -- which is an obvious put-on, since he’s an admitted mama’s boy and devout churchgoer -- is the Embattled Superstar. We won’t rehash his controversies, which usually involve alleged sexual acts with young teenage girls. But the result is that he rarely gives press interviews, and saves his best retorts for songs like the boisterously loud “The Champ Is Here” from 2007’s Double Up. Much of his 1998’s double-album R. is dedicated to how the world views him, and why “Only the Loot Can Make Me Happy.”
The Hip-Hop Homie
The quality of Kelly’s forays as a hook-man for sundry rappers range widely. Ja Rule’s “Wonderful,” Nas’ “Street Dreams (Remix),” Cassidy’s “Hotel” and Twista’s “So Sexy” sound inspired, but Fat Joe’s “We Thuggin’,” Big Tymers’ “Gangsta Girl” and his own “Supaman High” with OJ Da Juiceman seem like boorish pandering. Kelly’s albums with Jay-Z, 2002’s Best of Both Worlds and 2003’s Unfinished Business, are best ignored, but their “Fiesta” hit is a memorable beach party of faux-Spanish guitar and whispered come-ons.
A related theme, believe it or not, is R. Kelly The Rapper. During his early years, Kelly modeled himself as a lyrical lover-man in the style of New Jack heroes Father MC, Heavy D and Bell Biv Devoe. It’s one of the reasons why his 1991 debut with Public Announcement, Born in the 90s, sounds hopelessly dated. This part of his catalog should be avoided, but if you must dabble, try “Freak Dat Body” and “Back to the Hood of Things” from 12 Play.
The Soul Student
Kelly has occasionally evoked the classic soul of his forebears. On 12 Play, he covered the Spinners’ “Sadie” in tribute to his late mother; and he went through a wonderful period in the early 2000s writing homage to the “steppers” dance culture in Chicago like “Step in the Name of Love” and the first half of 2004’s Happy People/U Saved Me. However, his recent work is drenched in nostalgia. On 2010’s Love Letter he evoked Jackie Wilson’s “Doggin’ Around” for “When A Woman Loves,” and promoted the album by performing tribute concerts to Sam Cooke. For 2012’s Write Me Back he interpolated Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” into “Feelin’ Single.” While some of Kelly’s fans hope his current obsession with the past doesn’t mean he’s gotten too old for contemporary R&B, for now it’s just another sign of his prolifically creative restlessness.