“Y’all tell me what’s R&B without the R?” – Thoia Thoing
Let the rumors circulate. The only thing that R. Kelly is guilty of is being one of the greatest artists in music history. He is an inspiration, a role-model, a friend and a spiritual guide. Among oher things, I credit R. Kelly with my acceptance into Harvard (“I Wish”), my 5th-place finish at the 2002 New England Track Championships (“I Believe I Can fly”), and the loss of my virginity (“Bump and Grind”).
A silky-smooth crooner with a rapper’s cocky swagger, R is carrying the torch of R&B lit by such legends as Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin while stoking the flames with street knowledge gained on Chicago’s Southside. Straddling genres, identities, and women of all races, Kelly perpetually evades pigeonholing, and his unparalleled career has cemented his position as one of the most enigmatic and influential entertainers of our era.
Now, you may think that I am being hyperbolic or facetious. I’m not. I love R. Kelly and I’m not ashamed to say it. His discography is the soundtrack to my life and I follow the Gospel according to R. on a daily basis. A sinner and a saint, R. Kelly is the prophet for the 21st-century, a time in which materialism and sexual profligacy can compliment rather than contradict brotherhood and spirituality. His mysterious persona exists in the twilight hours between the V.I.P. lounge and the church pews, stuck in a perpetual cycle of hedonism and repentance. From church choirboy to transcontinental thug, the 36-year-old Kelly has seen more than most people see in a lifetime. One would do well to heed his invaluable wisdom.
Unfortunately, most people are too caught up in the controversy surrounding R. Kelly to recognize his miraculous talents. It is impossible to encapsulate the glory of R in the space of this page, but I will try to provide a brief glimpse into his genius. If you’re not convinced, you are basically a hater. Winston Churchill once called Russia “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” It seems that R. Kelly and Russia have more in common than just the letter “R”.
“We on camels in our throwbacks.” – Snake
First, consider R. Kelly the trend-setter. It is safe to say that R sets more trends than Sex and the City, and his sartorial sensibilities are unparalleled in the music world. While his hip-hop counterpart Jay-Z recently made the unreasonable claim, “I don’t wear jerseys, I’m thirty plus / Give me a crisp pair of jeans, playa, button up,” the Pied Piper is still unashamedly rocking throwbacks as a staple, as I can only hope to be doing at that age. Moreover, he has recently made a move towards donning only customized jerseys, and his music videos speak volumes for the resplendence of his wardrobe: the camouflage Jordan jersey in the desert for “Snake,” the Japanese-lettered Lebron James exclusive in “Thoia Thoing,” and the pink Pisces jersey in “Hotel.” But when he’s not in club mode, R’s fashion shines with the intensity of a thousand suns. The Teflon Don has been known to rock a custom-made gray pinstriped suit with his hat smoothly tilted to one side, or a crazy cape-and-eyepiece combo that makes him look like a thugged-out Zorro. And, of course, Jacob the Jeweller (who else?) always keeps the R-ruh’s “wrists Rocky like ‘ADRIIIAN.’”
“Vacation in Japan while you wish for Benihanas / On the way to pick up my donna, the Ill Na Na” – Dollar Bill
With international fame and the funds to floss, R. Kelly has blossomed into a man of the world. From the Japanese sound of “Thoia Thoing” to the infectious Arabian flutes of “Snake,” Kels has more flavors than an ice cream truck. On “Fiesta remix,” he began his fruitful love affair with the Spanish guitar, which biographer Rob Marriott describes as “R’s equivalent to Muhammad Ali’s phantom punch, a light touch capable of knocking a body out.” But while fame and fortune have allowed him to jet set around the world, Kelly never lets go of his roots. A choirboy who started out singing on train platforms (which probably inspired such lyrical gems as “I can keep your body comin’ like a CTA”), Kelly can never forget the streets.
“Now usually I don’t do this, but go ahead and break ‘em off with a little preview of the remix…” – Ignition remix
R’s injection of international influences into his music is a testament to his broader talents as an industry innovator. P. Diddy may have “invented the remix,” but Kelly perfected it. On his album Chocolate Factory the song “Ignition” transitions seamlessly into “Ignition remix,” an unprecedented musical feat—who said that a remix should post-date some earlier song? More recently, Kelly has continued to revolutionize the remix, releasing not one but two remixes to “Thoia Thoing” and opening up a whole new world of music-making: the remix to the remix. Even more remarkably, Kels invented his own phrase and publicized it through a song that is essentially about drinking Cristal, rolling in Hummers, and having sex. What makes the term thoia thoing so incredible is that it means everything and nothing at the same time—as Kels explains on the first “Thoia Thoing remix,” “Anything you say it means, that what it mean / You say sex, then probably / Some say it means pushing a Lex, then probably.”
“All I need is my CD, a bag of weed and some Cristal.” – R&B Thug
When it comes down to it, that’s really all I want too, and that’s what I love about R. Kelly—we always seem to be on the same page. In the club anthem “I Like,” Kels essentially lists the things he likes, which include “games and DVDs,” “Henney with no chasers,” “mansions in the hills,” and “clubbin’ and big tymin’.” I too like these things.
But the R-ruh has music for all moods, and while he can get me hyped to hit the party or make unreasonable purchases on my father’s AmEx, he can also make me ponder the tenuousness of life or convince me that I can indeed fly. R. Kelly’s silky-smooth voice and innate thuggishness allows him to switch modes from preacher to player in an instant—his music has more emotional range than Shakespeare’s First Folio. At one moment, he is a dirty-talking player: for example, “Girl, you look just like my cars, I wanna wax it. / And something like my bank account, I wanna spend it.” But blink an eyelid, and the R transforms into a spiritual guide. “I Believe I Can Fly,” it is safe to say, is one of the most uplifting ballads of our era—as Marriott so aptly explains, “[It] was a song so universal, it made both gang-bangers and soccer moms dream of better things.’” The fact that my mom used to bump it out of her Dodge Caravan is only further evidence of R’s ability to touch anyone, from hood to the burbs and beyond. With a voice smoother than a $1000 six-ply cashmere sweater and a rapper’s street mentality, Kels has the ability to say what other artists are scared to say. After all, who else could get away with the line, “We at the crib so there ain’t no rules. / I’m butt-nekked, sweat socks and house shoes”?
“You can’t touch me, no you can’t touch me / Jigga, Kelly, not guilty.” – Guilty Until Proven Innocent
In 2003, R. Kelly had one of the most clutch performances in the Age of Radio, making music so addictive that everyone quickly forgot about the controversy and jumped back on the R bandwagon. The “thoia thoing virus” has become an epidemic, and the boy Kels has proved that he has the tenacity and talent to fight adversity with creative energy.
Now y’all tell me what’s R&B without the R?
[Disclaimer: If R. Kelly is actually convicted, please burn this article and kick me in the balls. Thanks.]
Chris Schonberger '06, or "Whispers" to his posse, lives in Currier House. In case you haven't figured it out already, he kind of likes R. Kelly.