The self-described "Pied Piper of R&B," Robert Sylvester Kelly has built a career marked both by spectacular highs and devastating lows. Kelly has not only one of the finest voices but also one of the most vivid imaginations in pop, and the charms of his music lay in his love of absurd metaphors and his ability to sell them with his songwriting skills. Arguably the most important R&B figure of the 1990s and 2000s, Kelly has proven equally adept at earnest ballads like the stately "I Believe I Can Fly" as he is at preposterous triple-entendre numbers like "The Zoo."
Kelly's beginnings were relatively traditional. Born on the South Side of Chicago to a single mother, Kelly dropped out of high school to earn a living singing on street corners for money. His youth was a troubled one: Though he has told many interviewers that he was shot at age 13 by local bullies, his mother has suggested that the incident may have, in fact, been a suicide attempt. He got his first real musical break in 1990, when he formed the R&B group Public Announcement. The group released just one album together, 1990's Born Into the 90s, before Kelly departed to start his solo career.
He was successful almost instantly: in 1993, he released the album 12 Play, which spawned the chart-topping singles "Bump 'n' Grind" and "I Like the Crotch on You" and established early his reputation for slow-moving sex jams loaded with innuendo.
Kelly's next chart success was not his own. In 1994, he was introduced to a young R&B singer named Aaliyah by her uncle, and went on to write and produce her debut, Age Ain't Nothing But a Number. The album was a success, selling over two million copies and spawning a wealth of hit singles, but the relationship will ultimately become a harbinger of things to come for Kelly. The two were, by most accounts, married in a secret ceremony at a hotel. The marriage was annulled when Aaliyah's parents learned about it, and both singers repeatedly denied it had ever taken place.
Kelly returned his attention to his music the following year, releasing a self-titled album that went on to sell four million copies on the strength of the hits "You Remind Me of Something" and "Down Low." The album found Kelly continuing in his chosen milieu of simmering R&B ballads — a form he perfected the following year with the release of his biggest single to that point, "I Believe I Can Fly." Unlike many of Kelly's previous singles, the song transcended genre boundaries, becoming just as ubiquitous on pop radio as it was on R&B, eventually climbing to the Number Two slot on the Billboard Top 200. The song also marked a thematic change for Kelly, one that found him moving away from pillow talk and into more inspirational subject matter.
Kelly's massive success was beginning to earn him the respect of more popular artists; in 1995, he wrote and produced "You Are Not Alone" for Michael Jackson and his 1998 double-album, R., found him singing alongside none other than adult-contemporary queen Celine Dion on the song "I Am Your Angel." Like his idol Marvin Gaye before him, Kelly was proving an asset not only as a vocalist, but as a songwriter and producer for other artists, and as his stature grew, so did his opportunities for collaboration. R. was another huge hit, selling 8 million copies, and his collaboration with Dion would surpass even "I Believe I Can Fly," netting him a number one single.
It is around this time, however, that Kelly's personal troubles intensify. Though he had married dancer Andrea Lee in 1996, by most accounts the marriage was a bizarre and unhealthy one, and Lee would later file protective charges against Kelly. He also faced more allegations of unlawful involvement with a minor when a woman named Tiffany Hawkins accused Kelly of having sex with her from the time she was 15 until she was 18. In 1999, Kelly had a brief affair with a dancer in his video "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time," never revealing to her the fact that he was married.
The following year, he released TP-2.com, an album that was more modest in scope than its predecessor but no less accomplished in its songwriting.
At this point, however, Kelly's personal travails had started to eclipse is professional success. In 2000, the Chicago Sun-Times published a story referencing allegations that Kelly had an affair with a 15 year-old girl. A few months later, Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis received an anonymous tape that showed Kelly and a girl — who was later thought to be as young as 13 years old — having sex. The video culminated with Kelly urinating on the girl. DeRogatis turned the tape over to the FBI, and Kelly was eventually arrested. Evidence grew to suggest that the girl in the tape was Stephanie Edwards, who had been introduced to Kelly under the auspices of Kelly helping her with her singing career. The scandal puts a momentary halt to Kelly's career; the collaboration Best of Both Worlds with Jay-Z stalled, with Jay deliberately putting distance between himself and Kelly. Much of 2002 is spent with Kelly facing an endless string of allegations stemming both from the videotape as well as new accusations of sexual misconduct by women from Kelly's past.
It was't until 2003 that he pulled fully out of his downward spiral with the release of Chocolate Factory, arguably his masterpiece. The album found Kelly moving past the simple stylings of contemporary R&B to incorporate Chicago's step music as well as elements of 1970s soul. Bolstered by the phenomenal success of "Igniition (Remix)," the album did more to re-establish Kelly in the public's good graces than any amount of official statements from the artist or his management. Kelly followed that album with another artistic triumph, the double-album Happy People/U Saved Me. It is here that Kelly fully indulges his love of classic soul and gospel, delivering tracks reminiscent of late-period Marvin Gaye, going light on the raunch in favor of simple songs of praise and celebration.
In 2004, he embarked on a tour with Jay-Z in support of a sequel to their Best of Both Worlds album, but the collaboration came to an abrupt end when Kelly accused a member of Jay-Z's entourage of attacking him.
In 2005, Kelly accomplished his most outlandish — and, by most accounts, spectacular — feat to date, the multi-part "Trapped in the Closet" series. The saga sprung from humble beginnings: a simple three-part soapy song-drama on Kelly's TP.3 Reloaded album. The song was so giddily outlandish, however, that Kelly soon started adding more chapters, each one more ridiculous than the last. The story — which began as a simple love trial — soon grew to involve nosy neighbors, gangsters and a philandering midget. All of these tales were delivered over the same musical backing track, and with the same level of self-aware winking by Kelly. After expanding the saga to 22 chapters and premiering them at New York's IFC Theater, Kelly put the saga to rest. The series did earn Kelly a new audience, however — those mostly being internet-savvy fans who fell for the saga's inherent absurdity. It is to those fans that Kelly would also cater over the next several years, leaking a series of songs to the internet well before their official release date, and all of them built on knowingly-preposterous premises.
On Double Up (2007) Kelly returned to the hip-hop-derived take on R&B that defined his earlier work. Perhaps encouraged by the success of "Trapped in the Closet," however, it also finds him at his most playful and absurd: on "The Zoo" he called himself a "sexasaurus," and "Sex Planet" found him turning the entire galaxy into an elaborate metaphor for getting down.
In 2008, after years of countless — and mostly ridiculous and unprecedented — delays, Kelly finally stood trial — not for having sex with a minor, but for possession of child pornography. After six years of cross-talk and controversy, the trial ultimately lost momentum and fizzled out; Kelly was acquitted on all charges on the basis that the identity of the girl in the video was impossible to definitively prove.
After an early internet leak of his intended 12 Play: Fourth Quarter, Kelly went back to the studio and soon released an entirely different, untitled album in 2009, which dropped many of the leaked tracks and replaced them with new compositions.