In the six years between R. Kelly’s 2002 arrest and his acquittal last summer, he wrote plenty of music that must have given his legal team plenty of headaches. It wasn’t just that he made some of the giddiest, goofiest, and most upbeat songs of his career, but that he made so many barely veiled—and borderline self-incriminating—references to the scandal. When police first alleged that Kelly had urinated on an underage sex partner, for example, he released the contrite-sounding “Heaven I Need A Hug,” a plea for support that featured the not-exactly-contrite refrain, “Shower down on me, wet me with your love.” The case centered around a lurid videotape of his purported trespasses, and Kelly recorded “Remote Control,” full of VCR- and camcorder-based double entendres. And his epic “Trapped in the Closet” series was, beneath its loony plot twists, a study in guilt, persecution, and sexual depravity.
So you might have expected R. Kelly to rush-release some response to the not-guilty verdict—a toast, a sneer, an octave-leaping gospel jam. But nothing came. Keeping his eyes firmly on the road, he finished work on what was to be his 10th studio album, 12Play: 4th Quarter, on which the trial bore no discernible influence and which was shelved after a few singles underperformed and the rest leaked online early. Perhaps Kelly decided that those fans who had rooted for him throughout the ordeal would chafe if he went from aggrieved victim of the system to gloating victory-lapper. Perhaps he decided that his whispered defendant’s-table prayer, “Thank you, Jesus,” was enough—he counted his blessings and shut his mouth. Or perhaps he’d come to depend on his courtroom struggle as a spur, and when it ended with him on top, he finally found himself at a loss for words.
On R. Kelly’s latest release, a free mix tape of original material and remixes called The “Demo” Tape, he finds a new antagonist worthy of his creative energies: middle age. Kelly has been releasing baby-making music since 1992, and at 41 he now enjoys a curious distinction: There is a generation of teenagers old enough to have been conceived while his music thumped on a bedside stereo. The “Demo” Tape is Kelly’s play—variously impassioned, unhinged, hilarious, and virtuosic—for those teenager’s ears (to say nothing of the rest of their bodies). The choice to launch this youth offensive with a mix tape makes sense, as these gray-market CDs are typically the province of artists who want to air ideas too rough for commercial release and who want to force comparisons between themselves and their peers—who laid better waste to this instrumental, me or that guy? They are the province, in other words, of the young and the scrappy.
In a sense, Kelly has won the fight before The “Demo” Tape even starts: All you need to do to confirm his titanic influence is listen to the songs atop the R&B charts, where air-humpers and sheet-rumplers have been mimicking his nimble, rapperly phrasing and gleefully off-color humor for years. To drive this point home, Kelly sings over recent tracks from T-Pain, Jeremih, and The-Dream, singers who have built careers atop his innovations. The-Dream is Kelly’s most accomplished student, and he paid his forebear tribute with this year’s “Kelly’s 12 Play,” a song about putting Kelly’s breakthrough 1993 album to X-rated use. But there was something a bit damning about The-Dream’s praise, too: a mild insinuation that Kelly’s best lays are 16 years behind him. So it’s up to Kelly to prove not simply his influence here but his relevance. The result is his finest—and, not coincidentally, his most ridiculous—album in years.
Kelly’s best music is powered by a striking tension. On one hand, his singing style can be marvelously restrained and subtle—he prefers to flick his tongue than to loll it, to slot his come-ons into spry meters and lightly syncopated couplets—but there is little that qualifies as restraint in his lyrics. He likes to describe sex as an inexorable, annihilating force and, in the process, to blur the lines between romance (the lovely “Your Body’s Callin’ ”), comedy (the bundle of health-code violations that was “In the Kitchen“), and tragedy (when he begged for sex “even when we’re sleeping” in 2005 it sounded more like a confession than a compliment). Here, his singing is clipped and airy, and his excesses are on proud display. On a remix of Lil Wayne’s “Every Girl,” he defies age’s downward tug by presenting himself as ageless. He fantasizes about bedding an entire family: mother, daughter, sister, cousin, even grandma. It’s both a Casanova brag and a bid for artistic immortality: It takes whole bloodlines to contain his sex drive.
That Kelly is able to be as outrageous as he wants—to go there—without grating on the nerves or succumbing to a tedious grossness is one of his greatest triumphs. Partly he pulls this off thanks to his bottomless facility for melodies: He can pack enough material for a dozen choruses into as many bars. And partly he pulls it off thanks to well-placed, well-timed punch lines—he’s long realized that the setup-payoff structure of a joke can allow it to become a little sex act in its own right. On his remix of The-Dream’s “Kelly’s 12 Play” homage, he sings, “She love how I’m doing it, ‘cause shorty scream like ahh-ahh … like I got two in it.” Between Kelly’s saintly falsetto and hammy pause for effect at the end, it’s hard not to chuckle at the line.
There’s no explicit mention of Kelly’s legal victory, but he might be processing it on the excellent, if deeply creepy, “Club 2 a Bedroom.” The beat is spare and strangely wistful, and the lyrics narrate a dance-floor coupling that sounds, at its inauguration, uncomfortably close to an assault: “She don’t really know what she about to get into, she don’t really know the boy about to get up in her,” Kelly sings, adding, “I’m’a have her screaming till they call the security. … Mama don’t trip, I own the club so we don’t gotta worry about security.” The bedroom and the nightclub—private and public spaces—become one as Kelly imagines having his way with a girl in front of strangers without fear of intervention or censure. The scenario might sound familiar to Illinois prosecutors.