Book of Kells

R. Kelly’s memoir is an entertaining read, but too many skeletons stay in the closet.

R. Kelly.
R. Kelly

Photo by Randee St. Nicholas.

When he was getting his start as a Chicago street performer, R. Kelly did some work on the side as a singing stripper in a Star Wars costume. The money was good, but he got into some trouble while seducing women in his Darth Vader mask, black robe, and “little patent-leather drawers.” The male stripper game, you see, “was controlled by big-time thugs who weren’t about to put up with some freelance kid dressed up as Darth Vader cutting into their profits.” After six months, he went back to singing in the subway.

Kelly’s new autobiography, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, is full of moments like this—bizarre, amusing, self-aggrandizing, often sexualized tidbits that burnish the R&B star’s image but don’t pierce his gleaming surface. The book doesn’t lack for revelations. Kelly and his co-writer David Ritz open up about the bullet that pierced his shoulder as a young boy, the tragic death of his first girlfriend, his poverty, his persistent illiteracy, and a childhood molestation that he was too ashamed to reveal until much later in life. It’s impressive and inspiring that Kelly overcame these dips in “the Soulacoaster.” (Considering this is the man who once sang, “Like Jurassic Park, except I’m your sex-a-saurus baby,” the book offers a disappointingly clichéd metaphor for life’s tribulations.) But this is a diary where the elisions are more telling than the disclosures, one that’s been carefully vetted to portray Kelly as a victim, never a victimizer.

The book’s primary mission is to offer a window into Kelly’s prolific genius. As the singer/producer tells it, his musical gifts are the product of genetics, hard work, and God’s grace. His mother, Joann—a soul singer who “sounded like Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin mixed together”—first encouraged him to become a musician, and a high-school teacher named Lena McLin gave Kelly a further push. McLin’s first words to him, supposedly before the singer ever opened his mouth: “The spirit of God is on you, son. You are going to be famous. You are going to write songs for Michael Jackson. … You are anointed.”

Kelly has internalized that prophesy. Ashamed of his inability to read or write, he trapped himself in the closet of McLin’s music room and learned to play piano. But his hit records weren’t birthed there. When he was 9 years old, Kelly explains, he had a dream in which “there were musical notes, except they were all cartoon characters.” When he asked the ’toons who they were, the animated creatures said, “We’re your biggest hit song.” Kelly says he couldn’t remember the words to his dream tune for 20 years, but “I Believe I Can Fly” emerged three hours after he got the call to work on the Space Jam soundtrack. “I really do believe God actually wrote that song,” he says. (The Notorious B.I.G. was the first to hear the song in progress. Kelly says it made Biggie cry.)

Soulacoaster won’t teach you how Kelly writes No. 1 records, but he does revel in how easily he does it. Every few pages, the Pied Piper of R&B bestows his musical gifts on a luminary in need. The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson comes to Kelly’s weekly basketball game desperate for a hit song. Kelly towels off and provides one that night. The down-on-their-luck Isley Brothers have a plane to catch in two hours. Kelly writes “Contagious” before they take flight. Fat Joe charges into his Miami studio and pleads, “Kells, you got to write me a hit, bro.” Thirty minutes later, he’s got “We Thuggin’.” And pity the star who rejects his gold-plated offerings: After Toni Braxton passes on “I Can’t Sleep Baby,” Kelly records it himself. It goes to No. 1 on the R&B charts.

The singer’s infallibility is a recurring theme. Throughout the book, he’s confronted by doubting advisors who seem to materialize only to illuminate Kelly’s impeccable judgment. “You’re exposing too much of yourself,” says an unnamed fellow I’ll call Straw Man Jones. Kelly’s response: “The more real I am, the more powerful my music will be.” Another anonymous advisor, Strawy Strawstein, tells Kelly not to release “Heaven, I Need a Hug” because “they’ll use it against you.” “Listen to me, I’m right,” says Strawy. “I didn’t listen to him because I felt he was wrong,” explains Kelly.

There’s only one instance when Kelly admits to listening to his chronically fallible support staff. In the 1990s, he says, a bunch of people filed “nuisance claims” against him—lawsuits he characterizes as thinly veiled blackmail attempts. His attorneys told him the smart move was to settle out of court. “I followed my lawyers’ counsel, but … I didn’t like doing it,” he says.

Kelly doesn’t reveal that these nuisances had something in common. As I explained during my “Dispatches” from the singer’s 2008 child pornography trial, at that point he had been accused at least 11 separate times of having sex with underage girls and had paid settlements to accusers on at least four occasions. When Kelly writes in Soulacoaster that his long-time manager had “suggested I get psychiatric help for my supposed sexual addictions,” he doesn’t mention that the manager, Barry Hankerson, believed Kelly had a “compulsion to pursue underage girls.” Hankerson had good reason to think that: His niece was Aaliyah Haughton, who married Kelly when she was 15. (Kelly and Haughton allegedly claimed she was 18 in order to get a marriage license.) The marriage was annulled at the behest of Aaliyah’s parents, and it’s apparently been wiped from Kelly’s memory as well. Though he writes at length about his rocky 11-year marriage to Andrea Lee Kelly, Aaliyah—who died in a plane crash in 2001 at age 22—is not mentioned once.

Kelly’s gloss on his trial, and his ultimate acquittal, is similarly shifty. Though he does acknowledge that the case centered on “a video that supposedly showed me having sex with a teenager,” he doesn’t bring up the fact that the man on the sex tape (a man who looks a lot like R. Kelly) is seen urinating on that teenager. And though he does describe his “log cabin” studio elsewhere in Soulacoaster—“It’s made out of logs and different woods. It’s small, intimate, and cozy”—he doesn’t identify it as the tape’s setting. For Kelly, the trial reinforces the book’s main lesson. This was an obstacle to be overcome, not a consequence of a personal failing. Kelly heroically ignores his lawyers’ demands that he cop a plea (“I got my gut instincts telling me to do what’s right”), and he explains that everyone who testified against him was prejudiced and looking for a payoff.

When it comes to sex, the foibles Kelly acknowledges are the ones that superstars aren’t abashed about admitting. Sex was the gimmick that made him a star, and lustful songs like “Bump n’ Grind,” “It Seems Like You’re Ready,” and “I Like the Crotch on You” became his trademark. He tries (and sometimes fails) to fight off the waves of willing women desperate to be ravished by him. In one instance, Kelly is enticed to cheat on his girlfriend by partaking in a hotel foursome. He doesn’t partake, however, because he gets stuck in an elevator on the way to the ménage a quatre. “Thank you, Lord!” he exclaims. “Thank you, Jesus!”

Soulacoaster is a worthwhile read for Kelly obsessives. You’ll learn that “Trapped in the Closet” “crept up on [him] like an alien from another planet” and that the bizarro, little-person-featuring hip-hopera was inspired by the soaps that his mom and grandma watched when he was a kid. (He will not, however, reveal the contents of “the package.”) Kells-ologists will also be interested to know that he made his associates wear safari gear while writing songs about Africa and that, despite his lack of playing time, his stint with a semi-pro basketball team “was no public relations stunt.” (Career highlight: slapping the ball away from Boyz II Men’s Nathan Morris.) Kelly’s constant mentions of McDonald’s—he waits for his children to be born there (“the Lord and I have agreed that I’m supposed to head to the hospital after … everyone’s all cleaned up”) and compares his club tracks to McRibs (“always available for a limited time only”)—are also strangely endearing.

The Golden Arches, it turns out, hold the key to understanding R. Kelly. He writes about going to Mickey D’s with his mom, dreaming that he’d be able to buy her a full breakfast to supplement her usual coffee. He gets his start performing at a subway station below a McDonald’s, singing about “the Chicken McNuggets and the tasty fries.” And when he’s acquitted of child pornography charges, Kelly celebrates with a double cheeseburger. But there’s also the fact, unmentioned in Soulacoaster, that Kelly faced two separate lawsuits in the early 2000s in which he was accused of having sex with underaged girls that he seduced at a McDonald’s. Kelly is a great musician and a fascinating character, but he’s an unreliable narrator of his own life story. There’s no harm in believing what you read in his memoir, just know that the darkest, most unsettling items have been left off the menu.