Subtlety was never R. Kelly’s strong suit, which is both his greatest gift and his greatest curse.
While many best know the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R&B” for his dominance of the R&B charts in the late ’90s and early 2000s — or, perhaps, for his endless litany of public scandals — Kelly was never one for doing things in a straightforward way. When he did a ballad, it was filled with more schmaltz than a hundred Hallmark cards. When he did a song about sex, it often pushed the limits of what was appropriate for radio play. His songs were earnest to a fault, and frequently bordered on self parody. On the one hand, his indulgences were so grandiose in nature that it was impossible not to get swept up in the fun, perfectly evidenced on classic tracks like the deep groove of “Bump n’ Grind”, the goofy party-lark that was “Ignition (Remix)”, and the skyscraping ballad-to-end-all-ballads “I Believe I Can Fly”. On the other hand, Kelly’s muse could also lead him a bit too far off the pasture, as tracks like the ludicrous “Same Girl [ft. Usher]”, overly-saccharine “I’m Your Angel [ft. Celine Dion]”, and the never-ending “Trapped in the Closet” soap opera were too obvious in their intentions, often ridiculous to the point of ridicule.
Yet Kelly was never one to give mind to his critics, as he continued to indulge his own insular vision no matter what. That his singing voice — which had a cadence that was more closely identified with modern gospel singers than that of most manufactured R&B stars, thus making it pop on radio — was as distinct as it was, he managed to command attention for his songs no matter the context.
Thus, the two-disc Essential R. Kelly tries to outdo his three previous best-of compilations by providing all the major hits in sequential order, telling his story all the way from his early days with his New Jack City outfit Public Announcement to his second major soul revival effort Write Me Back in 2012. Coming in at an intimidating 35 tracks, it may very well be the best summation of Kelly’s career up to this point. Its only faults are not to do with the track selection so much as the fact that some of his hits just don’t hold up all that well several years down the line.
Things start off with one of the most energetic offerings in R. Kelly’s entire discography, “She’s Got That Vibe”, an upbeat club song he did with backing group Public Announcement (and let the record show that no matter how they paint their history, “backing group” is an appropriate signifier, as none of the other members managed to have even a third of Kelly’s on-record personality, as their subsequent Kelly-free efforts proved). The song itself wasn’t a huge hit in the U.S. — but went Top Three in the UK — but it provided a nice introduction of R. Kelly’s powerful voice to the public. The group’s next song, the surprisingly clichéd loverman groove “Honey Love”, wound up going Top 40 in the U.S., even if it sounds awfully generic by today’s standards.
After branching out to launch his solo career with the acclaimed 12 Play in 1993, the hits started racking up in quick succession: “Sex Me” (oh the hilariously sultry way he says “second verse”), the #1 smash “Bump n’ Grind”, “Your Body’s Callin'”, “I Can’t Sleep Baby (If I)”, and so on. These songs shared a lot of the same sonic elements, and, surprisingly, are almost all set at the same tempo, as if Kelly had found a successful formula and sure as sex wasn’t going to changing it anytime soon.
However, 1996 brought forth a unique opportunity in terms of Kelly writing a song for the soundtrack to a little movie called Space Jam, and the song didn’t just go massive: it went global. Suddenly, Kelly realized that by not playing strict R&B and honing on his natural pop instincts, he could be an even bigger superstar than he already was, so after dropping a single song in 1997 (“Gotham City” for Batman & Robin), he designed 1998’s R. to be his across-the-board epic, a double disc indulgence of his every whim and fancy, whether it be more hip-hop oriented (“Did You Ever Think [ft. Nas]”), shameless AAA pop fodder (“I’m Your Angel”), and so on. It proved to be a hit, going platinum several times over, but, as history has proven, R. Kelly has never been able to replicate R.‘s success in any significant way.
What does make The Essential R. Kelly unique, and stand out far and above 2003’s The R. in R&B and 2010’s Playlist: The Very Best of R. Kelly, is how unlike those other compilations, Essentially actually culls tracks that Kelly worked on only in a featured artist capacity that also went on to become huge hits. Sparkle’s “Be Careful” is included here, as is Cassidy’s “Hotel” and Ja Rule’s “Wonderful”. Although The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Fuck You Tonight” was never released as a single, it edges out the likes of Puff Daddy’s “Satisfy You” and Fat Joe’s “We Thuggin'” to be included on the first disc, which is actually a smart move, given that that song has greater cultural weight than those other collaborations did, given the iconic status of Biggie’s Life After Death.
Yet once the new millennium hit, Kelly’s output started getting increasingly scattershot, the success of “I Believe I Can Fly” giving him the notion that he could make music that is more profound in nature, capable of greater societal change. “I Wish” actually holds up surprisingly well, and it was during this time that Kelly began branching out of his tightly-regimented production aesthetic, seeking out new textures to expand his sound. Only two cuts are used from 2000’s TP-2.com, and from there on out, the compilation veers between out-and-out classics like “Ignition (Remix)” and “In the Kitchen” to surprisingly forgettable works like “Thoia Thoing” and “Same Girl”. The first chapter of “Trapped in the Closet” is included almost for posterity more than anything else, but it’s also joined with the excellent “I’m a Flirt” remix with T.I. and T-Pain, a worthy hit at a time when his albums basically became less thematically coherent and instead seemed to serve as hotbeds for potential singles. A few tracks from his soul revival works rounds out the compilation nicely.
However, for a career-spanning set this epic in scope, there are numerous songs that surprisingly didn’t make the cut. Where’s Public Announcement’s “Dedicated”? “Summer Bunnies”? “Snake”? Heck, even “Gigolo” with Nick Cannon? Yet, the most glaring omission of all — especially for a compilation as thorough as this is — is the complete absence of “Fiesta (Remix)”, one of his most noteworthy post-millennial tracks and a great chart accomplishment. It did appear on the 2003 R. in R&B comp, but given that it hasn’t appeared in any other collection since makes one think that either Kelly (or perhaps guests Jay-Z or Boo & Gotti) have somewhat soured on it.
Still, with his oversized personality, singular vision of all things sexual, and notorious public life, R. Kelly is and will always remain a fascinating pop music figure. While The Essential R. Kelly won’t necessarily convert anyone who isn’t already a fan, it serves as a great intro for this R&B enigma, a go-to for the curious and, arguably, the only R. Kelly set one may ever actually need to own.