12-Play (Jive, 1993)
R. Kelly (Jive, 1995)
R. (Jive, 1998)
TP-2.Com (Jive, 2000)
Chocolate Factory (Jive, 2003)
Happy People/U Saved Me (Jive, 2004)
TP3: Reloaded (Jive, 2005)
Double Up (Jive, 2007)
Untitled (Jive, 2009)
with Public Announcement
Born Into the 90s (Jive, 1992)
The Best of Both Worlds (Jive/Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam, 2002)
Unfinished Business (Jive/Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam, 2006)
As the most important R&B producer of the hip-hop era, R. Kelly laid the blueprint for mainstream soul in the 1990s and 2000s: a mix of syrup and sex, of church-trained vocals and vibrant, rap-savvy beats employed in the service of a night out at the booty bar. Sometimes Kelly just wants to document his busy love life (see "Sex in the Kitchen," or "Sex Planet") but he's often been a tormented Lothario, plumbing the depths of his sexual neuroses like Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson before him. At his best, Kelly expresses fears and worries that most lover-man R&B is too booty-fixated to bother itself with. At his worst, he sounds like he's pretending to be a tortured soul in order to wheedle some sympathy out of the ladies.
Kelly came up in the last wave of New Jack, and some of that style seeped into his debut. Though he always was a hell of a singer, nothing in the dozen songs of 12-Play (three times as good as foreplay, get it?) suggested he was in it for the long haul—"Bump & Grind" was so direct that you can't really call it a come-on. Window—fogging was still his m.o. on the followup, but Kelly managed to keep it in his pants for stretches at a time. "You Remind Me" turned a string of dumb woman-as-car metaphors into a classic single. R. Kelly has its moments—particularly the astounding cheater's plaint, "When a Woman's Fed Up"—but Kelly can't keep it up for two full discs. TP-2 is early Kelly at his most wacked-out; at one point he assumes the voice of God to lecture himself.
In 2002 a videotape surfaced of Kelly allegedly urinating on a 14-year-old girl, and the legal limbo and specter of kiddie porn loomed over his career, even after he was found not guilty in 2008. But unlike Michael Jackson or Chris Brown, Kelly worked tirelessly through his scandal continuing to rack up hits, endear himself to critics and even embark on a creative renaissance. If R. Kelly was ducking for cover, you couldn't tell on the celebratory, mega-horny Chocolate Factory, an album that's equal parts sappy and smutty, dripping with his warmest pick-up joints to date—the indelible "Ignition (Remix)," the luxurious "Step In The Name Of Love," the aggro-Motown come-on "You Made Me Love You." More obliviously joyful, the 21-track Happy People/U Saved Me starts with a disc of Stevie-soaked sunshine — a cartoonishly happy album that's ultimately more suspicious than infectious. Its second disc, some conciliatory gospel crooning from the mountaintops, ranges from soul-bearing to overbearing.
By TP.3 Reloaded, Kelly's lyrics became horny to the point of being completely unhinged (the hilarious "In The Kitchen," the curious "Sex Weed") and conceptual to the point of demented (a whole song his lover wears his T-shirt). The story-song "Trapped In The Closet," complete with its accompanying long form music video, is the ultimate evidence of Kelly as oddball genius, a genuinely fantastic 16-minute piece of meta-fiction that rides the same chord progression and blooping percussion through a five-part soap opera of infidelity, bisexuality and (in the eventual parts 6 through 22) shyamalan-esque twists.
Double Up explodes with bottle-popping club bangers, co-starring an all-star lineup of guest rappers. Kelly's usual velvety Casanova jams are present too, but he's more likely than ever to stumble into the goofy, low-concept weirdness that earned him a quasi-ironic hipster fanbase ("The Zoo," "Rock Star" and "Sex Planet" are all self-explanatory). For Untitled, Kelly mostly dwells in the slow jams that made 12 Play a classic, but he effortlessly injects them with the electro-tinged sheen of contemporary club music and the trunk-rattling boom of Southern hip-hop.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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