It is my suspicion that critics and listening audiences have taken R. Kelly for granted. Simply put, he is arguably the most accomplished R&B songwriter/producer of HIS generation, having written the post-soul/hip-hop generation’s first “standard” in “I Believe I Can Fly”. I am fairly comfortable in suggesting that pop singers will be crooning the tune well into the next two decades (isn’t that a score?), much the way they have sung Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”, and that God-awful “Wind Beneath My Wings” (Check out Lou Rawls’s 1982 version for a definitive recording of the song) over the past two decades, or much the way pop and jazz singers regularly recorded Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” during the 1940s and 1950s.
Kelly is also an accomplished singer who is notable for being a “archivist” of black male singing styles as represented in his regular channeling of definitive “Soul Men” like Ronald Isley and Jeffrey Osborne, but more tellingly obscure voices such as Lenny Williams (Kelly’s signature “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” riff on tracks like “Half on a Baby”) and former Gap band lead Charlie Wilson, who was also a major influence on the vocal style of Aaron Hall. Kelly is clearly a student of the tradition he forwards, but has also been heavily criticized for his willingness to take that tradition to the “gutter”, or rather “to the back room, up against the wall, high heels and all”.
“I Believe I Can Fly” notwithstanding, Kelly’s popularity was initially based on gratuitous sex-play ditties like “Bump N’ Grind”, “Sex Me”, and “I Like the Crotch on You” all from the “recording as porn flick” project 12 Play. He has been fairly frank in interviews about the fact the he “sells” sex and has gained his popularity because he sells it so well. Despite this Kelly has shown great sensitivity towards woman in his music, as emblematic in his frequent referencing of his late mother — Kelly recorded a version of The Spinner’s “Sadie” as a tribute to her — and the clearly women-centered tracks he has written and produced for black female acts like Changing Faces and most notably Sparkle whose duet with Kelly on “Be Careful” presented considerable male/female balance to the various mutations of black romantic dysfunction.
Nevertheless Kelly is a product of black urban spaces and the urbanization of black popular expression and as such his music is representative of the of the tropes of the “thug-nigga” and “thug-pimp” that are regularly employed by young black men. While Kelly has often deftly negotiated these contradictions, as he did on his most recent recording, the double-CD R(1998), and the “Sermon” from R. Kelly(1995), TP-2.COM — the title a reference to 12 Play as in “12 Play 2000” — finds Kelly returning to familiar territory essentially asserting that “Thug Niggas” need love too. Musically, TP-2.COM represents some growth on Kelly’s part as the project is not bogged down by the derivative musical themes that have undermined his previous projects and hampered productive song writers such as Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds in the past. The project is handicapped by sexual themes that are, frankly, over-the-top. This is not as much a commentary on those sexual themes, per se, but that TP-2.COM only serves as a 19-track caricature of Kelly as witnessed with a track such as “R&B Thug”; a persona done more convincingly these days by Jaheim, whose debut Ghetto Love will be released in March. In 1993 such themes, while not necessarily fresh, were a necessary guilty pleasure, given the genre’s reliance on R&B staples like faux-lover man Luther Vandross, his under-privileged (in talent and depth) “cousin” Freddie Jackson and a cast of Marvin Gaye wannabes such as Christopher Williams and H-Town.
With TP-2.COM Kelly comes off as a damn near 30-year-old man still trying to get his freak on with 15-year-old girls — likely the only audience that would fall for song titles like, “Strip for You”, “Like a Real Freak”, and “Feelin’ on Yo Booty” (yes, that is the name of the song). In part this is the failing of an industry that has not allowed “traditional” R&B voices, such as Kelly and others tackle complex themes, while allowing neo-soul hybrids the space to do so. This trend is perhaps most alarmingly as witnessed in the current “we are now video-hos” projects of Tamia and Chante Moore. In this world D’Angelo’s nakedness in “Untitled” is “art”, while Kelly’s proclivity for taking his shirt off is just him acting the “ho”.
What is so maddening about it all is that the sexual themes, much like Sisqo’s “Thong Song”, obscure what is truly a fascinating recording at least in its musicality. For many of the tracks Kelly employed veteran string arranger Paul Riser, who is perhaps most well known for the stirring string arrangements on the Temptations classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”. Musically, compositions like “The Greatest Sex”, “Just Like That”, and “I Don’t Mean It”, represent some of the most accomplished of his career. “I Don’t Mean It”, and its sequel track “I Mean (I Don’t Mean It)”, two of the best tracks on the recording, find Kelly delving back into the kind of domestic issues that made his aforementioned collaboration with Sparkle and “Down Low Double Life” and the brilliant “Woman’s Fed Up”, (with a clear nod to the Persuaders’s classic “A Thin Line Between Love and Hate”) both from R. so notable. Kelly specifically engages this theme from the vantage point of the scorned woman on the dramatic “A Woman’s Threat”. Kelly’s willingness to openly discuss the anger of black women, without simply reducing them to psychopaths as witnessed in any number or recent videos, disturbs the “bling, bling and booty” persona that he has so deftly and consistently employed throughout his career.
Kelly wears his contradictions in public. With the aforementioned “Sermon” from R. Kelly for instance, Kelly directly appeals to the dominant “moral” institution of the black community to protect him from the heavy criticisms he faced after the discover of his marriage to 15-year-old protégé Aaliyah and it is perhaps at those moments that Kelly is most alluring as an artist. Kelly’s “I Wish”, TP-2.Com‘s lead single and clearly the project’s most affecting track is emblematic of Kelly’s sensibilities is this regard. “I Wish” is Kelly’s blatant attempt to come to terms with the death of his mother and one of his childhood friends. The song is fascinating on several levels, not the least of which is Kelly’s conscious invoking of the artistry of Sam Cooke and the safe havens of home and community. Kelly, who invoked a wide range of Soul Men on his previous project, including Donny Hathaway, initially took on “Sam Cooke” with the track “Turn Back the Hands of Time”. In this regard, Kelly’s much more accomplished and lucid rendition of “Sam Cooke” on “I Wish” allows the singer to come full circle in the tradition to acknowledge the singular figure who is generally regard — Litlle Willie John notwithstanding — as the “father” of the Soul Man tradition. Kelly is simply exquisite squeezing “Sam Cooke” out of the phrase “come on and braid my hair”, the phrase itself a powerful referencing of the intimate personal relationships contained in the ‘hood.
As witnessed in the video that Kelly himself directed, there is perhaps nothing more comforting and intimate as sitting on a stoop having your hair braided, a theme that has been referenced by a wide range of black artists including Snoop Dog. Though less accomplished but no less passionate, Kelly directly addresses his dead friend on “I Wish — Remix (To the Homies That We Lost)”. The remixed song and video more powerfully articulates the contradictions that Kelly feels about his success and the distance from his childhood Chicago neighborhood that his success instigates. In one striking moment in the song, Kelly urges radio programmers to not blot out his use of the word “nigga”, from the song as he endearingly refers to throughout the song as “My Nigga”.
Musically TP-2.COM is no comparison to its “R&B Thug” predecessor 12 Play — TP-2.COM is simply a measurement of Kelly’s growth as song writer and producer. As Kelly’s once unchallenged status as dominant R&B crooner has been clearly eroded by the likes of “little Kelly” Avant and quite frankly Kelly’s adulthood, one hopes that Kelly in future projects will allow himself to more fully explore the powerful themes of vulnerability, loss, responsibility, mourning, remorse and contradiction that listeners only get a glimpse of with TP-2.COM.