By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
By Julie Seabaugh
By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
By Kelsey McClure
So when did R. Kelly become the perverted uncle of the R&B "family"?
For me, it certainly wasn't when the tape, um, leaked. I still haven't seen the tape, although everyone I know has, including my best friend, my mama and Bob Saget. In case you've been in an ice cave in Greenland for the past year or so, this would be the tape that allegedly shows Kelly partaking in sex and several golden showers with a fourteen-year-old girl. The tape that got Kelly indicted on 21 counts of child pornography. The tape that turned many rap-music bootleggers into kiddie-porn distributors. The tape that had everyone calling Kelly a pedophile. (Actually, the correct term would be ephebophile, since the technical term for adults who lust after teenagers is ephebophilia.) And it wasn't even when Kelly, as a precursor to the current chaos, caused an uproar when he married his then-teenaged protégée, the late Aaliyah, back in 1994.
Nope, it wasn't any of that. In my opinion, Kelly's pervert status was confirmed way, way back on his 1993 debut solo album, 12 Play, when he composed a track called "I Like the Crotch on You." A choppy dance number that found Kelly laying down his extreme desires (booties, mostly), "Crotch" had to be the first instance in which Kelly's fetishistic, somewhat disturbing sexuality managed to ooze out of his music. It also had to be the first time that many R. Kelly fans did a double take when they heard the song blare out of their speakers -- was this man really singing about crotches?
Prince notwithstanding, no contemporary black musician has constantly grappled with his dark side as publicly as R. Kelly. Over the course of five solo albums, Kelly has consistently walked that oh-so-fine line between heartfelt poet and potential sex offender. On one song he's convincing a lover that he'll never leave her. On the next he's singing about feeling up said lover's booty. Turn on the adult-contemporary station and you'll hear R. Kelly singing an uplifting song about how he believes he can fly. Switch over to the R&B dial and you'll hear him singing an uplifting song about going "half on a baby." This Jekyll-and-Hyde ghetto-fabulousness has often worked in Kelly's favor, making him look like a sexually adventurous musical genius, the kind of guy who could compose a sweeping love ballad about the best piece of ass he's ever had -- in fact, he did, with "The Greatest Sex" on his album TP-2.com.
And because he shrouds his perversions in beauteous, often eloquent musical compositions, many audiences have chosen to ignore or overlook R. Kelly's freak within. As long as he makes choice booty-call music, they imply, who are we to complain? But as Dave Chappelle once noted, the signs of Kelly's predilections, his carnal implosion, were always there in his music. (In retrospect, "Crotch" did seem more like a cry for help than something to get your boogie on to.) Chappelle then launched into a video in which he masquerades as Kelly and performs a tune called "I Wanna Pee on You." Girls get doused with vats of urine, and Chappelle's Kelly declares that "the only thing that makes my life complete/Is when I turn your face into a toilet seat."
Although that takeoff -- or as the Brits would call it, piss-take -- was mercilessly, undoubtedly dead-on, there's a good chance Kelly's fan base didn't find it all that tickling. In a phenomenon similar to the O.J. Simpson case, it seems black audiences have gotten more supportive/protective of the man ever since the tape surfaced in the mailbox of Chicago Sun-Times pop critic Jim DeRogatis. Pundits and assorted outraged white folk have barely contained their disgust, but switch over to BET's Comic View any night of the week and watch as the audience moans with disapproval whenever a comic does a zinger about Kelly's predicament. When Chris Rock cracked on Kelly during this year's Video Music Awards -- Rock said Kelly had to sit "way up in the balcony" since the Olsen twins were seated on the ground floor -- black-radio DJs went on the airwaves the next day and declared Rock out of bounds. (Apparently they didn't have a problem with Rock's most moan-worthy line that night: that faded pop star-turned-American Idol judge Paula Abdul has about as much credibility judging singers as Christopher Reeve has judging a dance contest.)
But why have fans and audiences, many of whom have seen the notorious footage, remained loyal to Kelly? In a word, talent -- as a performer, and even more so as a songwriter-producer. There is no denying that Kelly has been the most lyrically stunning R&B songsmith of recent years, invoking the rhythmic passion of the '70s soul artists (Mayfield, Gaye, Pendergrass) who obviously inspired him. (Kelly has worked with Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers quite extensively.) Kelly makes captivating tunes like no one else does, turning kitchen-sink dramas into five-minute songs the way Douglas Sirk used to lay them out in two-hour movies.
And audiences have lapped it up. People don't want him to change a thing. One female fan voiced her hope that Kelly wouldn't get all spiritual, à la Al Green, and turn his back on the sinful, secular music that made him a star. Agreed, it does seem like a cop-out when celebrity heathens stop backsliding and suddenly find Jesus. But her take on the situation appeared more troubling, because it sounded like she was in denial about Kelly's kinky demons. Like most fans -- especially females -- she was willing to give Kelly a pass as long as the "sensitive superfreak" persona stayed intact. It's discouraging -- even the most intense R. Kelly fan has to worry if the man has serious, harmful problems.