"I'm not in no lane," says R. Kelly. "I'm music and I just want people to know me as music. Not some R&B guy."
Bearded and nursing a cigar, the 48-year-old singer-songwriter-producer is at New York's Jungle City Studios one September night, spinning tracks from his upcoming 13th album, The Buffet (due December 11th). Kelly pared down more than 450 songs for a release that's turning out to be the most comprehensive spread of the songwriter's sundry passions to date — full of twists on modern hip-hop, sexy Chicago stepping music, street-corner doo-wop, fiery blues rock and, most surprisingly, a country song, "Barely Breathing," that keens like post-twang Bon Jovi.
"I love country music," says Kelly. "Because country music tells stories, and I tell stories. That's a good friend of mine, you know?"
Kelly recorded most of The Buffet at his Sylvester studio in Chicago over the past two years, occasionally falling asleep in his chair during marathon sessions.
"If there was a person that had a job keeping the sun coming out and keeping the moon coming out, if God appointed somebody to do that, then they have to be there doing it every day, and every night," says Kelly, "and that's who I am. I have to keep the music going."
Part of this meant creating new sounds that fit modern hip-hop radio, updating his style with Future-style rap gargles, trap-centric hi-hats and watery alt-R&B that will "take your body on a sex vacation."
"I just stay in tune. It's like a piano that's been around for 30, 40 years. If you continue to tune it, it will continue to sound as fresh as any brand new piano," says Kelly, who hears new music on the 30-minute drive to the studio or playing on the video screen in the outside hallway. "Look, you're not gonna wear Cross Colours these days. But Cross Colours can't get mad when Gucci come out with something hot and say, 'Whoa, why they wearing that kind of stuff? It ain't like it used to be.' Music changes and you get in line or you get left behind. If Auto-Tune ... if that is what the people like, that's what you do! You got to get with the times and quit whining about Auto-Tune. [Zapp & Roger's] 'Computer Love' was Auto-Tune, and it was a big hit!"
On another track, Kelly even tries exuberant ad-libs that sound like Atlanta rap energy shots Migos. "I'm really intrigued with the way the rappers today have totally flipped the rap game with the flow," says Kelly. "I love the way the young generation has taken rap and flipped it into a new type of flow. I like challenging myself and seeing if I can do that. I'll hear it and I begin to do it just like anybody else get a new app on their phone."
The emotional apex of The Buffet is "Be There," a duet with his once-estranged teenage daughter, a budding singer-songwriter who goes by Ariiraye'. Kelly hadn't seen her in three years when they had a chance run-in at a mall. After texting back and forth, he invited her to the studio, putting the finishing touches on an older, unrecorded song before she arrived. Recording an intense, personal duet – which features lines like "I just wanna be there when you conquer the world" and "You tell us you need us/But I need to believe you" – was the first time they hung out in years.
"It was very emotional for both of us, you know," says Kelly. "At first, she was a little uncomfortable, but I was telling her how she could touch the hearts of a lot of girls out there that haven't seen their fathers. We can touch a lot of daughters and fathers, and mothers. 'Cause [there's] a lot of women that haven't seen their fathers, a lot of fathers that haven't been able to be around their kids like they want to be."
If a father-daughter reunion via song seems a little extreme, Kelly says that "Be There" just another example of the plain-spoken real talk that's always powered his music.
"I am what I am; I'm a writer. Every one of my hits was something that was a reality: 'I Believe I Can Fly' all the way down to 'Ignition.' … It's just a real song," he says. "Who has the balls to write a song about the father and daughter not seeing each other, not being with each other, and need to see each other, and need balance in they lives. Who can put that song together where the melody worked, the hook works and the lyrics connect? So that's when I step in. I'll write the song that other people want to say but just don't know how to put the words together."