If you were a musician about to stand trial for child porography charges, you might not include a song on your new album called "Sex in the Kitchen." But you're not R. Kelly. On his new album, TP.3 Reloaded – which continues in the horny tradition of 1993's 12 Play and 2000's TP2.Com – the Chicago R&B megastar also pushes the boundaries of what we know as pop music. "Trapped in the Closet," a brilliant five-volume, sixteen-minute soap opera about a cheating husband, pushed TP.3 to the top of the charts, despite the fact that it has no lyrical hook. "I certainly didn't go into the studio and say, 'I'm gonna write a novel today,"' says Kelly, answering questions about everything but his legal woes through a speakerphone in a Chicago hotel room. "The song scared me at first, because I was two minutes into it still singing the verse. But everyone in the studio said, 'I love it!' Now I'm up to fifteen chapters."
What is your first musical memory?
My mom actually had a band called Six Pack – even though there were seven of them – who went around Chicago performing popular songs. Her voice was like Gladys Knight mixed with Aretha Franklin. When I was a kid, the band used to sit around our place playing cards. She had a record player – an old, beat-up one – but it worked. The first thing I remember hearing is the Isley Brothers' "Harvest for the World." When I was sixteen, I was invited to one of their shows, but it was in a tavern, so I couldn't watch. I was backstage, crackin' the door, lookin' out. All I could hear was the crowd screaming. My mom was tearing up the clubs.
How did you find your voice?
I'd sing around the house. One day my mom told me, "If you get this riff that Stevie Wonder does, then you'll be able to sing anything." It was from the very end of "Master Blaster (Jammin')." Then I started learning everybody's riffs, from Donny Hathaway to Jeffrey Osborne to James Ingram. That helped me create my own style of singing.
All ten of your records have gone platinum – where do you hang those trophies?
Downstairs in my house I have a museum room. I keep all of my awards down there, and childhood photos, and even all the clothes I've worn on tour, in videos and on album covers.
Do you have any memorabilia from other artists?
I have Marvin Gaye's driver's license. His wife sent it to me, because she really loved my Happy People record. She said that she thought it represented the sprit of her husband. The license is from California. I get inspired every time I look at it. It can't get more soulful than Marvin. He had a tone in his voice like no other. It was like he swallowed a flute, and he was never afraid to talk about the struggles.
What's the most technical piece you can play on piano?
I'm not very good at picking stuff up off the radio. It takes me way too long to learn other people's music. By the time that happens, I've already got five new songs of my own.
Your press biography calls you a genius. you think?
[Long pause] I don't know how I feel about that. I feel like I have some climbing to do. There are so many songs in me that haven't been born yet. So I can't call myself a genius, but I never turn away a compliment, and I feel like I'm on my way to that mountain. Ronald Isley is a musical genius.
In the liner notes to TP.3 you write, "Ronald Isley – What's up, Dad?" Is he a father figure to you?
Definitely. Our conversations go a lot deeper than music.
What line of yours makes you laugh every time you hear it?
There's a whole lotta laughs. I'd say on the first chapter of "Trapped in the Closet" [sings]: "Shit/Think/Shit/Think/Shit/Quick, put me in the closet."
On that song there's a sample of a dripping water faucet. Where'd that come from?
We recorded it in a sink down in my basement. We put the sampler right next to the water and got a good drop, baby. I got so many samples of birds and trees and wind and storms and cars. All the sounds on "Trapped in the Closet" – the knockin' on the door, when I grab the keys, when I walk down the stairs, the car horns – we sampled all of those things around my house.
On "Sex in the Kitchen" there's a line about the chick cutting up tomatoes, fruits, vegetables and potatoes while you're doing her. What on earth is she preparing?
[Laughs] I think she was making a chicken salad!
Then why was the oven at 500?
For the rolls, pimp! The butter rolls!
What's the ring tone on your cell phone?
Some corny ring that's built into it.
I thought that all true playas had their phones on vibrate.
First of all, if you're depending on a ring tone or a vibration to prove you're a playa, then believe me, brotha, you are not a playa – you hustlin' backward.
If I'd just made love to your lady, and you caught me coming out of your closet, what would you do about it?
[Laughs] That's a very high – like as in touching-the-sky high – hypothetical.
This story is from the August 25th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.