The rap on R. Kelly’s first two albums was that the Chicago singer/songwriter and producer was a soulman with no real soul, just another hot ‘n’ horny would-be Lothario using his silky-smooth grooves to lure the honeys to his water bed. But those who’d seen his emotionally wrought live shows knew there was more to the picture. “There’s R. Kelly, and then there’s Robert,” Kelly says. “R. Kelly is a thing on TV, but nobody knows Robert and what he’s been through.”
Coming on the heels of “You Are Not Alone,” the hit he crafted for Michael Jackson, Kelly’s third Jive effort indicates that he has the range of an R&B great. It’s also the album on which R. and Robert merge, offering a look at the man behind the libido.
Humping and bouncing are still the central obsessions, to borrow the title of one track, but another dimension has been added. Like so many R&B singers, Kelly started out in the church, and a gospel sermon opens the album. After thanking the Lord for his success (“Even the Statue of Liberty wants to bump and grind,” he sings in a preacher’s cadence), Kelly admonishes critics who questioned his depth as well as gossipmongers who speculated about his relationship with his teenage protégé, Aaliyah (“Before you go tryin’ to pass judgment on me/Pass judgment on yourself”). He soon gets down to taking his laid-back beats, gently pulsing bass and soaring vocals to the streets, but he continues to balance the sacred and the profane in gorgeous tracks such as “Religious Love” and “Heaven If You Hear Me.”
Kelly could use some more sophisticated metaphors to match his maturing musical talents (“You remind me of my Jeep: I wanna ride it,” he sings in “You Remind Me of Something”), but he has grown out of his unthinking misogyny to the point where he makes a plea in “As I Look Into My Life” to “brothers in the ghetto” to “love and respect that woman and bring her happiness.” Make love not war is an old message, but Kelly delivers it with sincerity. By spreading it in the hood in these violent times, he believes he’s doing God’s work, and who’s to say he’s wrong? Predecessors like Marvin Gaye and Prince have shown that great sex is spiritual, and Kelly’s make-out music ranks with the best.