And for his next trick, R. Kelly will make you love country music. But before he dives into tragic love songs, VIBE talks to Chi-Town’s prodigal son about being brilliant
WORDS: Keith Murphy
ILLUSTRATION: Jack Hughes
The genius of 46-year-old singer/songwriter/producer Robert Sylvester Kelly is in his otherworldly ambition. “I’ve really been writing a lot of country songs,” says the Chicago native. He’s serious. “I used to get criticized for doing a ‘Bump & Grind’ then turning around and doing a gospel song. But the truth is I’m glad I have a gift that allows me to switch lanes.” Kelly embracing his inner Johnny Cash should not be taken as some Snoop Lion switch up. Who is willing to place a bet against the man who struggled with reading only to become one of the greatest writers of his generation?
Kelly’s money has always been on his talent. He had designs of penning his own brand of rhythm and blues: devilish admittances via gospel vocals (12 Play). and that should have been the end of the story, except we’d be stuck in 1993. Over the next two decades, Kelly would total nearly 40 million albums sold as a soloist, birthing some of the best R&B ever heard (ex. 1998’s R, 2001’s TP-2.com, and 2003’s Chocolate Factory).
But world-beating stats do not make a genius. It’s breaking outside your comfort zone as the modern-day king of sex-drenched bedroom instruction to become an evolved studio visionary (Aaliyah, Changing Faces, Isley Brothers). It’s pulling off a seamless segue into the pop realm delivering monstrous hits for icons like Michael Jackson and Celine Dion; all while remaining a staple in the hip-hop sphere (his multitude of collaborations with Jay-Z and Biggie). Even when Kelly is at his most ridiculous—study the ‘hood-musical-meets-soap-opera saga “Trapped in the Closet”—it somehow works.
The greatest musical mind of the VIBE era took time out to discuss his genius process, surviving pornography charges in 2002 and why his next album Black Panties will reclaim his freak flag.
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