The music of R. Kelly has always been rife with blatant contradictions. It has often been difficult to reconcile the man responsible for the 1990s motivational anthem “I Believe I Can Fly” with the man responsible for songs like “Sex Me”, “Bump and Grind”, and “Feelin’ on Your Booty”. Taken as a whole, these songs are clearly the musings of a thoughtful, passionate, and openly sexual individual. But Kelly, like many African-Americans raised in the bosom of the black Christian experience, has likely felt shamed and constrained by that experience, which at times has openly aimed to deny the full expression of black sexuality, not only within the walls of the church, but within those public, civic, commercial, and private spheres where the Black Church holds sway. One can only wonder if the often absurd and surreal sexual narratives Kelly has produced (including his illegal propensity for under-aged girls) is a product—a response—to the sexual repression of the Black Church and its institutional satellites (what’cha y’all think the sex scandals among Catholic priests are about?).
A close listen to Kelly’s formidable body of work suggests that of a tortured soul—a literally Tortured Soul. Kelly has at times been linked to the Soul Man tradition—a tradition that has produced a litany of talented, even brilliant, men who often lived tragic and tortured lives. When one thinks of the lives and deaths of figures like Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, Walter Jackson, or the tragic-comic dramas of Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Rick James, and Wilson Pickett, to name just a few, there seems a clear pattern. Many have suggested that these men, all products of black church culture, paid a price for their willingness to sell their gifts from “God” to the highest bidders, be they record companies or adoring female fans. None of these men can match the impassioned contradictions that were Marvin Gaye—a preacher boy at odds with all forms of authority, including that which he felt was imposed by the women in his life and the father who eventually took his life, who shamelessly and shamefully explored the intersections of sex and spirituality with a clarity rarely achieved in any form of expressive art during the 20th century. While R. Kelly is no Marvin Gaye, the recent releases of Gaye’s I Want You (Deluxe Edition) and Kelly’s The R. in R&B Collection (Volume 1) place their tortured Soul in striking proximity with each other.
Janis Hunter was a 16 year-old high school sophomore when she walked into a Los Angeles studio in March of 1973 with her mother Barbara and was introduced to a then 33-year-old Marvin Gaye. Gaye was recording his 1973 classic Let’s Get it On and by all reports was immediately smitten with the mature teen-age girl. Hunter’s full impact on Gaye can be heard on the deluxe edition of Gaye’s Let’s Get It On (2001), which contains versions of the title track recorded before and after Gaye’s initial meeting with Hunter. It is the post-Hunter version of the song that has become the classic ode to soulful ecstasy. By the time Gaye released I Want You (a sexual ode to Ms. Hunter) in mid-March of 1976, he had fathered two children with Hunter: Nona (born in September of 1974) and Frankie Gaye. The duo would finally marry a year later, once Gaye’s divorce to Anna Gordy Gaye (sister of Berry) was finalized.
Throughout his career Gaye escaped intense scrutiny of his relationship with Hunter, which began while he was still married to, though estranged from, his first wife—the kind of scrutiny that has dogged Kelly since his marriage to the late Aaliyah Houghton in 1993. Granted, Gaye was never implicated in acts of child pornography and—unlike Kelly—he didn’t have to confront a 24-7 media glare. There was no Electronic Urban Report (EUR), Tom Joyner in the Morning Show, BET, or Wendy Williams for Gaye to contend with, only Jet Magazine, the still ghetto-fabulous digest of choice in many black homes. But there’s no denying that he was sexually involved with an under-aged woman-child, 17 years his junior, when he sang lovingly in 1974 on “Jan” (from Marvin Gaye Live), “Janis is my girl, in all the world, there no one as lovely . . .”
The most striking thing about I Want You when it was first released (the single “I Want You” dropped shortly after the album) was the cover art, which featured a painting by Ernie Barnes. “Sugar Shack” (perhaps the first visual celebration of the bootyliscious aesthetic) was well known to some audiences, as a version of the painting was featured at the end of the opening credits of the television series Good Times. The painting embodies what Thelma Golden, curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, would call the “Black Romantic”—a style of painting that Natalie Hopkinson of the Washington Post describes as the “visual-art equivalent of the Chitlin Circuit”. The hip-hop group Camp Lo paid tribute to Barnes’ painting on their 1997 release Uptown Saturday Night, which featured a hip-hop remix of the painting by Dr. Revolt. Gaye was initially introduced to Barnes by Barbara Hunter, eventually buying eight Barnes originals, including “Sugar Shack”. For the album cover, Barnes added references to Gaye’s new release, “I Want You”, much the way CD stickers currently highlight the hoped-to-be new singles.
When the single “I Want You” finally dropped on April Fool’s day (exactly eight years before Gaye’s murder), Gaye was trying to compete in an arena that he was largely responsible for creating: hyper-sexualized Soul. In the aftermath of Let’s Get it On, a bunch of cats had changed up their flow, including Smokey Robinson (who dropped his definitive solo release, Quiet Storm) and vocalist Major Harris (who broke from the Delfonics and recorded 1975’s classic “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”). “Love Won’t Let Me Wait” gained some notoriety because of the female vocalist who feigns a rather impressive orgasm in the background. That same year, Leon Ware produced “Come inside My Love” for Minnie Riperton, using the same strategy featured on the Harris recording. Ware broke through as a songwriter a few years earlier, co-writing (with T-Boy Ross) Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” (1972) and writing the title track to Quincy Jones’s Body Heat (1974). Gaye was being chased by the demons of his relationship with Jan, his failed marriage, and the IRS, and resisted going into the studio to follow-up Let’s Get it On, but it was Ware who was largely responsible for getting Gaye focused again.
Virtually all of the tracks on I Want You were co-written by Ware with T-Boy Ross (Ms. Di’s brother) and Gaye. Most of the songs were intended for Ware’s album Musical Message and a debut project for Ross, but after Gaye heard versions of “I Want You”, he asked Ware to produce a whole album for him. Like many of Gaye’s most classic albums, I Want You was a collaborative effort, but part of Gaye’s genius was that those albums always seemed to be the product of his own tempestuous burden. If Gaye only co-wrote some of these songs, he surely was the single author of their emotional power.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on songs like “I Wanna Be Where You Are” and “All the Way Around” (both written by Ware and Ross), and “Since I Had You” (written by Ware and Gaye). “I Wanna Be Where You Are” seems like an afterthought, as Gaye improvises for little more than a minute over the melody that Ware and Ross first wrote for a teen-age Michael Jackson. But it’s in the closing moment of Gaye’s riff that you realize the song is simply a night-time whisper to his children (“Good-night little Frankie / Nona / Night little Marvin”) and to his lover (“I’ll always love you Janis”). The alternative version of the song clocks in at over six minutes, though much of it remains an instrumental groove, but you can’t listen to it without imagining Gaye riding on a tour bus or airplane looking out the window and thinking longingly about his family.
Both “All the Way Around” and “Since I Had You” seem songs less about Gaye’s budding romance with Jan Hunter and more about some sort of reconciliation with wife Anna, which at the point of his recording I Want You would have been highly unlikely. But “Since I Had You” also seems to suggest an unraveling drama between Gaye and Jan Hunter, one that might have necessitated the recording of an album like I Want You in the first place. Though they finally married in 1977, Janis Gaye filed for divorce in 1979, even as Gaye was settling up financially with his first wife Anna Gordy Gaye. One of his best performances on the album, “Since I Had You”, is about a man stepping to a former lovely years later at “a neighborhood” dance where they “got that old feeling again”. The song is legendary among some critics, who have for more than twenty years tried to decipher the song’s bridge: “Big Daddy Rucker is sho’ nuff getting down ... ooh baby I haven’t seen you in such a long time / Remember how I use to do this to you / In” at which point Gaye’s vocals become inaudible as his vocals are mixed down and background vocalist Gwenda Hambrick’s feigned orgasm is mixed louder. The alternate mix offers little relief to the mystery.
But so much of I Want You is less about romance and romance-revisited, but the nuts and bolts (no pun intended) of hot sweaty sex. “Come Live with Me Angel” (written by Ware and Jacqueline Hilliard), “Feel All My Love Inside”, and “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again”—all explicitly sexual tracks that Gaye performed full of the obsession that he seemed to carry for his new love. Gaye sings the refrain, “I wanna be your lover / At least three times a day” throughout “Come Live With Me Angel”. On “Feel All My Love Inside”, Gaye gleeful describes, “I’ll be stoking you / In and out / Up and down / All around / I love to hear you make those sounds . . .” while Hambrick “responds” accordingly. The alternative version of the song features a post-coital musical release (more tasteful than, say, Art of Noise’s “Moment in Love” or Lil’ Louis’s “French Kiss”) that functions as a sledge hammer for those who had somehow missed the point of the song. But it is the exquisite “Soon I’ll Be Loving You” that ranks as the most sexually explicit song in Gaye’s oeuvre. The tension begins at the beginning of the second verse, where Gaye sings in a straight falsetto, “Oh, no I never gave up no head” while his layered tenor affirms “I never did that before”, referencing his first trip “downtown” with the object of his affection. An enjoyable experience, apparently, as the song’s closing refrain finds Gaye singing “give you some head baby / I’m gonna lock you right up woman . . . I want to give you some h-e-a-d . . . oooh I love to get it / ‘Cause I know just what to do with it” as he closes the song with a whispered “Soon I’ll be lovin’ you, oh Janis . . .” The alternative version features Gaye in what can only be described as an extended orgasmic fit.
It’s hard to believe that R. Kelly didn’t have “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again” in mind when he playfully sings “boot-e-e, b-o-o-t-e-e” over and over on the remix of his song “Feelin’ On your Booty”, and yet the fact remains that Kelly has never recorded anything as sexually explicit as Gaye’s “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again”. R. Kelly’s notoriety has really had less to do with his music, but really the conflation of his celebrity persona, extralegal exploits, and the overtly sexual themes of his most popular songs. Understand, Kelly deserves all the scrutiny and scorn that he has received in recent years, but his music doesn’t place him outside of a tradition—as many pundits would like us to believe—but as the most exemplary example of that tradition since Marvin Gaye’s death in 1984. And yes, titles like “Bump N’ Grind” and “Sex Me” (both featured on The R. in R&B) and “Feelin’ On Your Booty” are perverse, but very much representative of hip-hop generation colloquialisms about sex and sexuality and thus no different than colloquialisms like “Jellyroll”, “Roll With Me”, or “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor” exchanged by earlier generations.
To truly understand R. Kelly is to listen closely to the songs that don’t ask you to shake your ass or to get your “Bump & Grind” on. There is that critical moment in “I Wish” (in my mind his most brilliant performance) where Kelly sings “instead of y’all throwing them stones at me / Somebody pray for me”—“Somebody Pray for Me”—and while Kelly admits to nothing in that lyric, he admits to everything, trying to find solace in the one place he always expected would forgive him for his sins. The aforementioned lyric is immediately followed by the closing chorus in which Kelly very consciously echoes the voice of Sam Cooke as he sings, “I’m up at the crossroads / Of my, my, my, my my life”. The Sam Cooke echo is crucial because Cooke was the first successful Gospel artists to break ranks with the “Church” and sing of the “flesh” instead of the spirit. Up until his death in 1964, Cooke was stung by criticism for his move to secular music and by the “Church’s” refusal to embrace him, once he literally crossed-over.
The mystical meaning of the “Cross Roads” is also important here, as Kelly’s reference to it speaks to his acceptance of the fact that he is going to have to own up to his sins. This theme (including the Cooke references) is also echoed in Kelly’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time”, which was originally featured on his 1998 double-CD, R. “I Wish” is largely a song about loss, as Kelly acknowledges the loss of friends and families, including his estranged siblings and his Joann Kelly, whose death (in 1993) had a dramatic impact on Kelly. Kelly is ostensibly reaching out to friends, family, and the grave—a man grasping to make sense of his wealth, his celebrity, and the utter misery of his life.
There’s a 10-minute version of Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” (currently unavailable commercially) which delves even deeper into Kelly’s chaos. Midway through the performance, Kelly acts out an exchange with the “Church” as he knocks on its doors (“I’m sorry for all of the wrong that I’ve done / So can you please forgive me and deliver me from my way”) only to have the Church’s figurehead—presumably the minister—openly reject him: “you are a heartless thug and we don’t want you here . . . any man that is of the world won’t be accepted here, go away”. After his rejection in the song, Kelly is rhetorically embraced by both his deceased mother and the “king of kings”. Taken at face value, the performance suggests that Kelly had in fact attempted to reach out for help in the past, but had likely been rebuffed by folks who could only see his celebrity and perceived reputation.
Kelly is a product of an era when the private and the intimate in black life and culture came into the full view of the marketplace, a process that had already begun when Gaye, Major Harris, and Minnie Riperton recorded songs with feigned orgasms in the background. For Kelly, part of that new terrain meant sharing not only his perceived sexual exploits, but the demons that have haunted him as a young black man coming of age in the full view of the public in a way that has only been experienced by young black male athletes, singers, actors, etc. who have come of age in the era of MTV, ESPN, CNN, and AOL-Time Warner. For all of the political significance and cultural weight attached to figures like Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Nat King Cole, none of them—with the exception of Ali—lived in the constant media glare that even second-rate rappers and third-string point guards often face today. This doesn’t excuse Iverson with a gun or Kelly with under-age girls, but places their indiscretions in a broader context than “what’s wrong with the hip-hop generation?” Imagine the media coverage today if a prominent rapper or R&B artist was murdered and one of his boys—his protégé—married his widow months after the murder, as was the case when Bobby Womack married the widow of Sam Cooke months after his murder?
While it is admittedly unfair to compare the obvious mourning process of Womack and Barbara Campbell (who were dealing with complicated feelings of longing and loss) alongside those of Kelly or anyone in the Hip-Hop Generation, my point is not to compare “sins” but to highlight how contemporary culture’s coverage of those sins unfairly depicts the sins of the “sons” (and daughters) as worse than those of the “father” (and daughter). R. Kelly is no Marvin Gaye, nor should he be. But R. Kelly is a Soul Man, who seemingly for lack of any other recourse, has chosen to share his demons with us through his music as so many tortured Soul Men of the past have.
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Mark Anthony Neal is the author of three books, including Songs in the Key of Black Life, and editor (with Murray Forman) of the forthcoming That’s the Joint!; The Hip-Hop Studies Reader.