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Digital Cover: Tyga 'King Unchained'

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Seated by himself on a small couch, Tyga is waiting for his lunch to arrive. The room is eye candy for architects and interior designers: high ceilings, exposed beams and hanging light fixtures contrast antique elements like the rows of Victorian picture frames adorning an entire wall. Then there’s this claw foot tub brought in for him to recreate Tupac Shakur’s iconic almost-nude photo (Pac’s privates are hidden by gold galore).

Tyga immediately scraps the tub idea. “I just don’t wanna recreate things that have been done,” he says. “Especially something so legendary.”

A large curtain separates him from two bodyguards perched on stools about six feet away. Tyga’s troop for the day includes his publicist, assistant, nanny, barber, and 2-year-old son King. For a man with an entourage, T-Raww is much more of a recluse than one would assume—or maybe he’s just overdue for some alone time.

There’s been a lot of emphasis on crew love in Tyga’s space over the years. It was 2007 when Lil Wayne recruited the Compton native to Young Money Entertainment. That was two years before Nicki Minaj and Drake blossomed into Tunechi’s big money brands. In five years, Drake has sold over 25 million albums and singles combined, and topped the Beatles this year for the most entries on the Billboard Hot 100. Then there’s Nicki, the feisty Queens spitter who can go bar for bar with the boys. Minaj signed with Young Money in 2009 and already has more Hot 100 hits than Michael Jackson (Though MJ’s output wasn’t nearly as bloated as today’s artists). She’s the first woman to simultaneously fill the No. 1 and No. 2 slots on the iTunes singles charts, both of her albums debuted at No. 1 and her “Starships” single had a record 21-week run atop Billboard.

"[Kanye] was like, ‘If you guys want me to help you produce your albums, and co-executive produce it, I’m here. I just want to help everybody.’”

By comparison, Tyga has yet to hit his sales stride, despite “Rack City’s” quadruple platinum certification. His third album, Hotel California, released last year, was a commercial flop. But the separation goes beyond stats

YMCMB couldn’t be more unified. Rich Homie Quan, and Young Thug are the new class of Rich Gang affiliates, while Nicki and Drake remain wholly committed to Wayne’s army. At Hot 97’s Summer Jam this year, Drake squashed his rumored micro-beef with Minaj by hitting the stage with her and Wayne. Tyga’s absence from the love fest, as well as the Drake vs. Lil Wayne tour (Y.G., was added to the tour for West Coast dates) was a tip-off that Tyga wasn’t top-of-mind at home base.

Now, as he readies The Gold Album: 18th Dynasty, Tyga is demanding attention from his team. Everything about the album—whose title is a nod to Tyga’s obsession with ancient Egyptians—is authentic to who he is currently. This album wasn’t made for the La Marina and Toxic set. As Tyga vaguely explains, it’s more “vibe music.” He’s anxious to get the project out, even if that means publicly criticizing the label. The day after VIBE’S cover shoot, he threatened to leak the LP via Twitter if Young Money didn’t give him a release date.

YMCMB president Mack Maine shot back through his own tweet, warning Tyga to take ownership of his shortcomings. Minaj then unfollowed him. Days later, he released “40 Mill,” one of the many Kanye West-produced cuts from his new album. Yeah, that Mr. West. He might now have the attention he was looking for.

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Sacha Waldman/VIBE

R. Kelly’s May 2002 Cover Story: CAUGHT IN THE ACT

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2002 issue of VIBE Magazine.

Written By: Lola Ogunnaike Photographs By: Sacha Waldman

“Jay-Z and R. Kelly together? Shit, that’s pure 88 base right there!” shouts Rand 50, an amped kid with dollar signs in his eyes. “I guarantee that album is going to do crack money like it’s 19 motherfucking 88.”

Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Saturday night. 12:30 a.m. Heads piled in a cramped bedroom tuned makeshift barbershop noisily debate hip hop’s most notable current event — the R. Kelly/Jay-Z collaboration. The unmistakable aromas of popped Heinekens, cheap vodka, and fried rice from the bulletproof Chinese spot fill the air. Pictures of the late great Notorious B.I.G. cover the well-worn walls. You can’t help but think that in another era, the beloved Biggie posters would’ve been framed photos of Malcolm X. But this isn’t another era, and this isn’t about politics.

It’s about something more serious to these black men — music. “What I want to know is, is this album gonna really break new ground?” asks Ern, the resident intellectual, as Mr. Jay, the resident barber, tightens up his edges. “Or is this going to be some old commercial shit you can Harlem Shake to?”

“Yeah,” Rated T chimes in, legs hanging off the side of his unmade bed. “‘Guilty Until Proven Innocent,’ ‘Fiesta’ — them shits was hot. But I don’t know about an entire album.”

“The question is,” Ern continues, “is this going to be something we’ll be talking about in five years? I mean, is this going to be a hip hop Songs in the Key of Life?”

Dashawn, the youngest of the group, shrugs his shoulders. “Do niggas care what the new Jordans look like?” he asks. “No. You don’t gotta see them joints to know that you’re gonna go out and buy them. That’s how people is gonna be with this album. Straight up.”

“This is big business, baby,” says Rand 50, running his palms together delightedly. “Pure and simple, this shit is about money.”

“Nah, this ain’t about money,” offers Khalil, a quiet giant who stands well over six feet. “It’s about their egos. They’re trying to solidify their spots in history. I think they’re on some this-ain’t-never-been-done-before shit.”

It is an epochal matchup. Two world-famous artists, superstars in their own right, join forces to create an original body of work, appropriately titled The Best of Both Worlds. Meet the titans. Jay-Z: über-prolific MC, ghostwriter, beef starter, rhyme slayer, the mastermind behind the irrefutable masterpieces Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint. King of killer crossover, citizen of the Hamptons and the ‘hood. Four of his seven albums have debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. R. Kelly: the new-millennium Marvin Gaye, the biggest thing to come out of Chi-town since Curtis Mayfield. Tortured church boy with a checkered past and the soul of a lovesick thug. Able to leap from inspirational power ballads (“I Believe I Can Fly”) to delightfully libidinous lullabies (“Your Body’s Callin’”) in a single bound. Between them, more than 30 million albums sold. Both have earned Grammys and loads of critical acclaim. Both have the type of work ethic a sweatshop owner in Sri Lanka would kill for. It’s the ultimate union of hip hop and R&B. Yep, you’d best believe the streets is watching — every blessed minute. R. Kelly and Jay-Z know this. That’s part of the challenge, they say. That’s part of the fun.

“The expectations of what this album will be are so fucking high we’ll probably never meet them,” a smiling Kelly surmises. “I’ve had niggas come up to me talking about, ‘That’s seven million off the top, that’s like the ghetto Thriller right there.’”

It’s the day before Jay-Z and R. Kelly’s press conference announcing their groundbreaking venture. On hand for the well-orchestrated media spectacle at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria will be P. Diddy, Russell Simmons, Johnnie Cochran, Ronald Isley, and, thrown in for good measure, a couple of pimps in full-length furs. Jigga and Kelly are holed up in a Trump Tower suite discussing how The Best of Both Worlds came to be.

READ MORE: Surviving R. Kelly, Part 1: How Fame Shielded R. Kelly from Accountability Early in His Career

“I can’t really say when it started,” says Jay. “We did ‘Fiesta,’ and ‘Guilty Until Proven Innocent,’ and it was like, ‘Man, those records came out crazy, homes.’ We threw the idea of doing an album together back and forth, and before I knew it… “

“We started bragging,” Kelly finishes. “The best of R&B. The best of rap. Let’s put it together and see what happens.”

It’s safe to say that BOBW — produced by Kelly and Tone of Track Masters and featuring Lil’ Kim, Beanie Sigel, Boo & Gotti — will be one of 2002’s most sought-after albums. By mid-February, bootleggers had already uploaded 15 tracks onto the Internet, even though the CD wasn’t supposed to be in stores for another month. Though it doesn’t boast much in the way of depth or originality — the guys stick to the standard bitches, baubles and bankroll propaganda — the album is chock-full of party-over-here anthems, which all but guarantees it’ll be the soundtrack to any summer barbecue worth its weight in potato salad.

“People are going fucking bananas for this shit!” says Def Jam president Lyor Cohen, an excitable Israeli-born gent who tends to speak in exclamation points. He and Jive president Barry Weiss flipped a coin to see which company would distribute the album in the United States and Canada. Cohen called heads and won. Jive will put it out internationally, but profits will be split equally across the board. “This is like throwing a cow into the piranha-filled Amazon! This is full-fledged pandemonium!” Cohen cries. “Jay told me to fasten my seat belt and watch this shit go down!”

If Jigga only knew.

WHEN a mighty oak falls, it makes a mighty noise. Watching Kelly joyously belt out his feel-good hit “The World’s Greatest” at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City on February 8, one would have never guessed that the married father of two was smack dab in the middle of a torrid, front-page scandal. That morning, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that it had received a videotape from an anonymous source showing Kelly having sex with an underage girl, and that police had launched a criminal investigation. Illinois State law prohibits adults from having sex with children under 17, and it’s a felony to videotape a sexual act with anyone under 18. News of the 26-minute, 39-second tape spread faster than a California brush fire. The Sun-Times didn’t print the name of the girl, or her aunt, who had identified the girl to police as a 17-year-old who was about 14 at the time of the taping. Kelly’s lawyer, John M. Touhy, said the tape was a forgery.

Needless to say, this latest and most damaging in a string of similar allegations against Kelly hasn’t gone over well with the folks at Def Jam. Jay-Z’s decision to team up with Kelly is now being viewed as a colossal mistake, according to industry insiders. While Jay has long maintained that his reasons for linking up with Kelly were purely creative, one can’t help but note that the venture was also a great way for the rapper to distract fans from the lyrical beefs he was engaged in with rappers like Jayo Felony, Fat Joe, the Lox and, of course, Nas, whose slingshot of a song, “Ether,” left Jay leaning a little past six.

READ MORE: JAY-Z, Questlove And More Reportedly Declined Interviews For R. Kelly Documentary

Hova, who was more than willing to wax rhapsodic about Kelly before Pampergate broke, steadfastly refuses to comment on his beleaguered partner’s plight. A tour to promote BOBW seems unlikely, and songs like “Come to Daddy” and “Naked” will most likely be jettisoned.

But shuttered promotional campaigns and last-minute album changes are the least of Kelly’s problems. If charged with and convicted of a felony, Kelly could face up to 15 years behind bars. And, as everyone knows, sex offenders don’t get treated with kid gloves in the joint. Then there are lawsuits to worry about.

SHORTLY after the Sun-Times exposé ran, VIBE viewed a copy of the infamous tape. Unless R. Kelly has an identical twin from whom he was separated at birth, there’s no doubt that the man featured on the raunchy kid-vid is none other than Mr. “Bump N’ Grind.” Kelly is conscious of the camera at all times, periodically adjusting it to capture, among other acts, the perfect money shot. The session takes place in a wood-paneled room in his house that bears an uncanny resemblance to the one in which VIBE shot Kelly for its November 2000 cover. The girl doesn’t look a day over 15. When he hands her what appears to be a crumpled-up wad of bills, she says “Thank you” and begins to perform fellatio. The tape then cuts to the naked girl dancing suggestively for the camera as songs by the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls play in the background on MTV. Kelly, not on camera, can be heard moaning, “Damn, baby.”

READ MORE: Disgruntled Parents Create 'R. Kelly Abuse Hotline' For Accusers

His moaning grows louder when the girl stops gyrating and begins urinating on the floor. Shortly afterward, the girl mounts Kelly cowgirl-style, and at his behest begins to talk loudly for the camera. “Oh, fuck me, daddy,” she cried. “Is daddy fucking you good?” the star asks repeatedly. Apparently, he’s into water sports, because approximately 20 minutes into the tape, Kelly, standing over the girl, begins to urinate on her face and chest. The girl looks visibly uncomfortable for a moment but lays still. Shortly after relieving himself, he begins to masturbate and then ejaculates on the girl. He’s kind enough to wipe the residue off with a towel.

Since news of the first tape broke, others have surfaced. In one of them, Kelly can be seen receiving oral sex from a fair-skinned girl whose face is obscured by her long black mane. The tape then cuts to Kelly performing cunnilingus on yet another young woman, who’s perched on an office swivel chair. This one, a dark-skinned girl with back-grazing micro-mini braids, happily returns the favor. After endless “12 Play,” Kelly (who doesn’t wear condoms in any of the tapes) and his paramour engage in intercourse. Kelly never has conventional sex with the third girl who appears on the tape, and her face is never shown. She just works her enormous posterior for the camera, moving left to right, up and down, writhing against the wall in supposed ecstasy. Ever the perfectionist, Kelly, who seems unhappy with the woman’s choice in underwear, hands her a pair of white, boy-cut panties decorated with red frilly lace. After quickly slipping the proffered panties over her own, the girl gets back to grinding. The scene ends some 15 minutes later with Kelly pouring bottled water on her bare buttocks.

That Kelly would find himself embroiled in sex acts with young girls comes as no surprise to many. Rumors of his predilection for teens have dogged him since his secret wedding in August 1994 to then 15-year-old R&B star Aaliyah. (The union was annulled months later by a Michigan judge.) If court records and the Chicago Sun-Times are to be believed, age really ain’t nothing but a number to Kelly. On Christmas Eve 1996, Tiffany Hawkins, then 20, filed a $10 million lawsuit against Kelly in Cook County Circuit Court charging that she suffered severe emotional harm as a result of her three-year relationship with him. In the suit, Hawkins said Kelly required her to have sex with him “as a basis for employment” and also made her “participate in…group sexual intercourse” with other underage girls.

On the same day, Kelly countersued for $30,000, claiming that Hawkins, an aspiring singer, along with others acting on her behalf, tried to extort money and a recording contract from him. Kelly also charged Hawkins with falsely accusing him of fathering her child. Although Kelly maintained in the suit that he never had intercourse with Hawkins, he eventually dropped his case against her and agreed to pay her a reported $250,000 settlement, which included a nondisclosure clause that forbids Hawkins and her lawyer, Susan E. Loggans, from discussing the case.

READ MORE: ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ Part 2: The Price Of Protecting A Problematic Genius

This past August, Kelly was slapped with yet another lawsuit. Tracy Sampson, an aspiring 17-year-old rapper who goes by the sobriquet Royalty, claims she met Kelly in April 2000 and carried on “an indecent sexual relationship” with him until March 2001. During this time, the suit alleges, Kelly showered Sampson with gifts that included “significant amounts of money”; an all-expense-paid trip to Florida for the 2001 Super Bowl; and “special access to recording studios and artists.” According to the suit, Kelly also repeatedly told Sampson “that he was in love with her and wished to continue with a sexual relationship.”

Sampson, who is also being represented by Loggans, was advised not to speak to VIBE on the grounds that it might jeopardize her pending case. But in court papers she filed, also in Cook County, Sampson claims Kelly took her virginity and “coerced her into receiving oral sex from a girl.” She is quoted as saying, “I was often treated as his personal sex object and cast aside. …He often tried to control every aspect of my life, including who I would see and where I would go. Our sexual encounters would always involve me giving him oral sex. During our sexual encounters, he would make me do disgusting things like stick my finger up his butt.” Sampson says she’s had to seek medical and psychological treatment for “extreme emotional depression…I get headaches whenever I see or hear Robert Kelly. I have problems sleeping and am tired. My self-esteem is low. I cry when I think about what he made me do.”

In this case, too, Kelly denies any illegal or immoral behavior. Asked about Sampson in court papers, he says she was nothing more than a “casual acquaintance” who dropped by his studio, Chicago Trax, “two or three times.” He doesn’t remember having any physical contact with the plaintiff or giving her gifts.

Kelly defenders might try to argue that he could be mistaking girls he’s fooling with for older women. But one witness in the Hawkins case, another girl who alleges she had sexual relations with Kelly, says Kelly knew she was only 14 when he met her at his high-school alma mater, Kenwood Academy, in 1990. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the girl, whom we’ll call X, says, “He was real sweet, like a big brother.” She and Kelly didn’t begin a sexual relationship until she turned 16, she claims. An aspiring singer who says she regularly performed in-studio background vocals for Aaliyah, X vividly remembers taking part in orgies with other underage girls. When asked in Aaliyah was ever involved in Kelly’s group-sex activities, she says, “No, not that I know of. He made her feel like they had a monogamous relationship. I really believe that they loved each other.”

READ MORE: R. Kelly's Backup Singer Recalls Witnessing Him Have Sex With Aaliyah

At the time, X says, she and Tiffany Hawkins thought that Kelly would make them famous. “He would say things like ‘I can make you a star’ all the time.” Following his advice, they dropped out of school to pursue musical careers. X says Kelly would often give them money for things like food and sneakers. “I think that’s why he messes with young girls,” she theorizes. “Because they don’t want anything but a Coke and a smile.”

“These girls don’t stand a chance,” says Loggans. “They’re so in awe of somebody like this coming up to them and lavishing them with attention. And for the most part, they want to be in the music industry.”

Though her affair with Kelly ended close to a decade ago, X, now 26, says she was so shattered by her encounters with him that she contemplated suicide for years and has yet to fully recover. “I have been on the edge of going crazy,” she says. “I used to think people that died in their sleep were lucky.” X says she now avoids men as a result of the molestation, but she doesn’t hold Kelly entirely responsible for what happened. “I blame myself just as much as I blame him. Even though I was young, I knew what I was doing,” she says. (Experts note that it’s not uncommon for victims of sexual abuse to blame themselves to some extent.) “A normal person would probably call me sick,” X continues, “but I still love his music to death.” Save for one song, she admits. “When I hear ‘Guilty Until Proven Innocent,’ I feel like he’s spitting in my face.”

Kelly is hardly the first celebrity to be accused of drafting from the minor league. Rob Lowe, Chuck Berry, Roman Polanski, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson have all allegedly, or admittedly, engaged in sexual acts with kids not old enough to vote. Still, friends close to Kelly says he has been devastated by the charges. George Daniels, a prominent Chicago record-store owner who helps oversee Kelly’s business affairs and considers him a son, says the entire episode has been very hurtful to the singer. “He’s been holding up pretty good,” Daniels says, “but you can’t imagine how a person feels when they go through that. They’re under a microscope, and the whole world sees.”

READ MORE: Andrea Kelly Believed She Was Going To Die During Tumultuous Marriage To R. Kelly

Daniels believes the current brouhaha is the work of people with a vendetta against the star. “Mr. Kelly has enemies out there,” Daniels says. “There are people that are quite jealous of his success, and they seem to be popping up at vital times in Rob’s career to try and destroy him.”

New theories about exactly who is after Kelly surface every day on talk shows and on the street. One theory is that Blackground founder and CEO Barry Hankerson — still smarting from Kelly’s decision to dump him as his manager in 2000 — is behind the tape leak. Hankerson, however, insists he has “never seen the tape and has nothing to do with Mr. Kelly’s problems.” Another idea holds that it was Kelly’s former protégée (and some say mistress), rumored to be the aunt of the 14-year-old in the first videotape. Repeated calls to the woman weren’t returned. Still another theory, put forth by Kelly, implicates unnamed, disgruntled former employees of his.

Daniels says he knows nothing of the tapes circulating and continues to remain optimistic. “Hopefully everything will turn out the way we anticipate, and he’ll be cleared of all these allegations,” he says. At press time, police had yet to charge Kelly with a crime. A spokesman for the Chicago PD says the case is currently under investigation by a special unit of the youth division. “We’re not in a hurry,” he says. “We’re interested in finding out the facts.” When pressed for a probable deadline, the spokesman says, “I imagine the investigation will be done before the summertime.”

Even if Kelly walks which isn’t inconceivable given his celebrity and access to top-notch legal talent, his reputation has been immeasurably sullied in the court of public opinion. Fans are willing to forgive many things — raging crack addictions, double homicides, repeated trips to the loony bin — but urinating on a minor? Even the most die-hard Kelly-phile must find that extreme.

Of course, the whole sordid affair is only made sadder by the fact that R. Kelly is one of today’s most gifted musicians. The passion he has for his craft borders on primal. “It’s the only thing I have to lean on,” Kelly says. Those who’ve worked closely with him describe a man who is as driven as he is gifted. “You never know what’s going to happen when you walk in an R. Kelly studio,” says director Bille Woodruff, who has shot seven of his videos. “Sometimes you feel like you’re in the world of Beethoven. He’s yelling ‘Bring up the strings,’ there’s all this classical music going, and he’s acting like a maestro. Another time he’ll have people playing spades in the sound booth while he’s recording because he wants that vibe. He’s a musical genius. He totally goes there.”

READ MORE: Throw The Whole Man Away: Why The Black Community Must Stop Supporting R. Kelly

Kelly will be the first to admit that he’s not a normal guy. During the course of a two-day interview, which took place just weeks before he became tabloid fodder, the star’s eccentricity was highly evident. It goes well beyond his documented refusal to wear underwear or his need to play basketball every night. Kelly admits he seeks solace in odd places. “I get great sleep in closets,” he says. “It’s mental for me. I know that nobody in the world knows where I am at that point.”

Zipping through the streets of Manhattan one night in his black truck, Kelly, who’s rarely without a large coterie of sycophants, sinks deep into the plushness of his backseat and slides one hands down his pants á la Al Bundy. Maxwell’s rendition of the Kate Bush classic “This Woman’s Work” has just come on the radio. “I wish I’d written this song,” Kelly says, closing his eyes. “A good song is just like drinking. You get lost in it.”

Kelly isn’t nearly as enthusiastic when Montell Jordan’s latest comes on. As if brushing off a foul odor, the singer pronounces Jordan “an R&B scrub.” Label-mate Joe, whose latest effort, “What If a Woman,” sounds as if it were made from the scraps left on Kelly’s cutting-room floor, also catches a swift jab to the gut. “He has a beautiful voice,” says Kelly, “but I think he needs a producer who is going to give him who he is, not who I am.”

READ MORE: R. Kelly Alludes To Sexual Misconduct Claims Being "Too Late" In New Video

It’s 5:30 a.m., six hours before his press conference with Jay-Z, and R. Kelly, who still hasn’t slept, is hovering over a tray of mini-burgers and onion rings at the White Castle near Times Square. The fast-food joint reeks of ammonia-drenched floors, week-old grease, and human odors. An elderly white woman in a matted blond wig interrupts that heated conversation she’s having with herself to ask for the time. A forlorn looking man, sitting alone in a neighboring booth, listlessly flips through yesterday’s Daily News. His nails are brown, the blisters on his face red. He’s totally unaware of the stench his body is emitting. No one here does a double-take when Kelly goes by. No one asks for autographs or pictures. No one screams, “Oh my God! It’s R. Kelly!” In fact, no one even notices him. And even though he’s on the verge of announcing one of his biggest career moves, it is here, amid this painfully surreal scene, in the unremitting glare of White Castle’s fluorescent lighting, that R. Kelly feels free to cry. As the tears steadily march down the cheeks of his ruggedly handsome face, he speaks of his mother, who died of cancer in 1993, and how the pain of her loss nearly drove him to commit suicide. “I put a gun to my head and all that,” Kelly says. “I didn’t want to live anymore.

God ultimately convinced him to put the gun down, he says. But like Marvin and Miles and countless others before and since, Kelly remains a troubled man, despite his career success, his six-year marriage to Andrea Lee, 28, and his affection for his young daughters, Joann and Jaya. Kelly’s demons pursue him; they’re never far behind. He trusts no one, not even himself, one suspects.

“The people I did trust aren’t here, and I don’t know anybody’s motives anymore,” he says regretfully, then pauses momentarily to stare off into the distance. “I’m a real person, and I love people. That’s my problem. I let people into my world, and they fuck some things up. But I turn around and love them anyway, because that’s what I want God to do for me.” The tears fall hard and fast now. “I forgive them,” he says, “because I want to be forgiven one day.”

READ MORE: Revisit VIBE's R. Kelly Dec 1994/Jan 1995 Cover Story/Exposé: 'SUPERFREAK'

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Dana Lixenberg for VIBE

R. Kelly’s Dec 1994/Jan 1995 Cover Story: SUPERFREAK

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1994 - Jan. 1995 issue of VIBE Magazine.

Written By: Danyel Smith Photographs By: Dana Lixenberg

“I don’t even know why I’m going to the show,” says DeeDee. She’s sitting in Splinters, in the Gallery Mall in Philadelphia, gettin’ the ‘do done. The hair on the back of her head is being tapered close to her scalp with electric clippers. The Braxton-esque crown is blow-dried straight and bumped under softly. “I can’t believe R. Kelly got married to that child.”

“But then I heard she ain’t no child” — this from another chair, where someone’s getting finger waves.

Then the girl with the electric clippers speaks. She talks out of the side of her mouth as she folds back DeeDee’s ear. “I heard she is. And that nigga” — now she looks up — “needs more than any 15-year-old can give him.”

The sprawling Gallery Mall — like the depressed, faded Philadelphia neighborhood it’s nestled in — was probably real fly about 15 years ago. Now only the most stalwart of chains — the Gap, Foot Locker, the Limited — remain. Stores stand empty; nowhere is there that mall bustle, except at the Hair Cuttery and at Splinters, and that’s because it’s Friday and sisters are getting ready for the weekend. They’re discussing R. Kelly because he’s headlining at the Spectrum tonight and because, word is, he just married his teenage protegee, Aaliyah.

Like the jocks on the radio in New York, Philly, Oakland, and L.A., folks are yammering about Kelly’s marriage, making comparisons to Marvin Gaye and Jerry Lee Lewis, joking about jailbait and robbing the cradle.

After arrangements were made for an exclusive interview with VIBE, R. Kelly pulled out at the 11th hour — on the advice of his lawyers. At press time, it was chaos within the Kelly camp, with no spokesperson for Kelly or Aaliyah (both are managed by Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson) commenting on the marriage or on her alleged pregnancy. The various rumors were helped along by everyone from MTV News to USA Today. But no one can answer the question Right On! posed months ago: “R. Kelly and Aaliyah: Are They Just Friends?”

The distilled hearsay goes something like this: First everybody thought Aaliyah and R. Kelly were so much in love that when he went on tour, they missed each other terribly. So he supposedly sent his bodyguards to Detroit to get her and bring her to Florida, where he was on a tour date. Then, supposedly, she traveled with him to Chicago, got a phony ID, and married him in a hotel room. Aaliyah’s parents were supposedly flipping, and her father supposedly wanted to put Kelly in jail. Supposedly the father went and got his daughter from Chicago, and forbade her to see him and vice versa. But, supposedly, that didn’t stop R. Kelly from calling Aaliyah and — when her dad answered — from supposedly saying, Put my wife on the phone. Instead, Aaliyah’s father put her on a plane to Europe, then Japan, where she’s supposed to tour for several months.

Then there’s the story that says Aaliyah is supposedly 19, and none of this is as scandalous as folks would like to make it. There is, after all, an Illinois marriage license dated August 31, for Robert S. Kelly and Aaliyah D. Haughton, which lists their respective ages as 27 and 18. (Of course, the marriage would be null and void if the ages are not legit.) The only problem is, while promoting her million-selling Jive Records debut, Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number, Aaliyah has been evasive about stating her age. Her official bio says 15, and a record company publicist has said, “We stand behind the bio.” Obviously, performers have been lying about their ages since the dawn of time. But that’s show business: smoke and mirrors, mikes and sound checks. Marriage, however, is something else, and if Aaliyah and R. Kelly’s is real, then her pseudo-Lolita image becomes reality. And R. Kelly’s sex-man image gets that much murkier.“

WHAT the fuck kind of dressing room is this?” says Scoop, one of Coolio’s boys. We’re deep in the bowels of Philadelphia’s Spectrum — it’s the Budweiser Superfest’s Philly stop. Coolio has just come offstage. Next up is Warren G, and then Heavy D & the Boyz — who are now girlz. R. Kelly tops the bill, and Aaliyah was supposed to be here too. She was dropped because the sponsor thought she was too young to represent a beer company.

Coolio and I are sitting in a hallway on aluminum equipment cases. As he languidly nurses a bummed Newport, pipe cleaner dreads limp with postset sweat, we talk about Los Angeles and Lakeside, the Chi-Lites and Billy Paul. Shaquille O’Neal passes by with an ALL ACCESS sticker pasted onto his jacket, and Coolio barely looks up. “He’s all right with me,” he says of Shaq, “as long as he stays on the court. He can’t rap.”Coolio says everybody on the Superfest is cool with each other, but that none of the crews really hang. They do play pickup hoop games together during downtime, under the big portable NBA hoop and backboard that travels with the tour. It belongs to R. Kelly, who hates to miss a day on the court.

But the conversation with Coolio has to wait, because Scoop has a serious problem with the dressing room.

“This is luxury compared with what we usually have,” says Coolio resignedly, barely glancing into the musty five-by-eight-foot room with a toilet and a mirror.

“Have you seen R. Kelly’s shit?” Scoop wants to know. “It’s big. Wall-to-wall carpet, big-ass color TV, food…” He rolls his eyes, pissed.

Coolio gives Scoop a buddy-to-buddy, get-out-my-mix-for-a-minute look, and then picks up where we left off. “R&B today is repetitious,” he says. “Everybody bites everybody else. Everything sounds like everything else.”

READ MORE: R.Kelly Thinks The Media Is Trying To Destroy His Musical Legacy

“Like R. Kelly sounds like Aaron Hall?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Coolio says, eyelids low, legs stretched in front of him — too chill, really, to be described. “Kelly bit Hall, Hall bit Charlie from the Gap Band, Charlie bit whoever he bit.”

I ask him whether he likes R. Kelly, his music.

“I checks,” says Coolio after a slo-mo exhale, “for dat nigga on the court.”

ROBERT Kelly grew up in Chicago’s infamous South Side. He loved basketball as a kid, rarely thinking about music, except when he sang in church. “My goal,” he has said, “was to be the next Michael Jordan.” That was cool, but R. Kelly’s mom, Joann Kelly, made sure her kids knew life wasn’t all playtime, especially after Robert, age 13, was shot in the shoulder as someone tried to steal his bike. (He still carries the bullet.) All four Kelly children took the academic tests necessary for admission to Kenwood Academy, a prestigious, multiracial public school in Hyde Park. They all got in.

When Kelly first came to Kenwood — the school that gave us talents as disparate as Chaka Khan and Da Brat — he couldn’t play a note. At the suggestion of music department head Lena McLin (Kelly would come to call her his second mother; he lost his own to cancer in 1993), he appeared in a high school talent show. He sang Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” and, according to McLin, “brought the house down.” Kelly has said he laughed at her when she asked him to sing. “But when I sang, people paid attention. I felt a sense of power, sort of like when Spider-Man got bit.

”Now retired after a 36-year career, McLin teaches privately from her Chicago home. From her tone, it’s easy to tell she loves and respects Kelly: “He was a fine student. Music history, theory, piano, choir, opera workshop, jazz workshop — Robert took it all. He wrote some gorgeous music. These are things he’s not singing now.”

No. Now he’s singing songs like “I Like the Crotch on You,” or the platinum single “Bump n’ Grind.” That song was the top pop single for three weeks and No. 1 R&B single for 12 consecutive weeks — reigning longer than any song since 1958. The album it springs from, 12 Play, stayed in the pop Top 10 for 20 consecutive weeks, held the No. 1 R&B album spot for nine weeks, and will reach quadruple platinum soon. Two other singles from the album, the limp “Sex Me (Parts I & II)” and the hypnotic “Your Body’s Callin’,” are certified gold.

12 Play didn’t come from nowhere. Kelly’s first album, 1991’s Born Into the ‘90s, went platinum. Though nearly invisible on pop playlists, the album had almost as solid an R&B fan base as Luther Vandross had on every album before Power of Love. Sure it sounded like a Guy tribute record, but R&B heads were sparked. Since then, Kelly has written and produced hit tracks for Changing Faces and for his bride, Aaliyah. Her “Back & Forth” was the single that nudged “Your Body’s Callin’ ” out of the No. 1 spot.

READ MORE: Throw The Whole Man Away: Why The Black Community Must Stop Supporting R. Kelly

Both Michael and Janet Jackson are also reaching out for R. Kelly’s Midas touch: He’s done remixes for her, and he’s written and produced a few new songs for Michael’s greatest hits package. Kelly has also worked with Toni Braxton, Lisa Stansfield, N-Phase, Ex-Girlfriend, and the Winans. “What I do now,” Kelly has said of his music, “is what I know people want to hear. Sex sells.” But there’s more to it than that. He’s definitely got a sound: People speak of “that R. Kelly feel.” His music moans almost as much as he does.

His second mother understands, kind of, what Kelly is up to. “He’s not an old-fashioned soul singer,” laughs McLin. “A lot of salable flash is what he’s doing now. We’ve not yet seen the heights to which Robert can go.”

“Robert is an immense talent. I don’t say that to build him up, I say it because I know what’s there. Where he chooses to go with it is his decision.” Out of nowhere, she adds, “Robert Kelly does not burn bridges.”

“I took him to perform at major universities all of the States,” she offers as explanation for the last remark. “Even took him to a music educators’ conference in Austria. He was a sensation there, and everywhere he went. At Kenwood he performed My Fair Lady, Carousel, Purlie….. He knows the Italian bel canto school of singing. He can sing classical music. My students learn breath control, diction, a little German, Italian, and French. When they get through learning that, they can sing what they want to sing.”

ONSTAGE at the Spectrum, R. Kelly’s dancing girls preen and dance around like they did last summer when he was opening for Salt-N-Pepa. Kelly’s moves are mostly the same too, but now he spends more time actually singing and less milking hormonal screams from the audience. In Philadelphia there is the same Kelly-directed, Kelly-as-superlover-fugitive short film to open the show; the same operatic intro to “Bump n’ Grind” (McLin would be proud); the same audience patter. So tell me honey: Who’s your bump n’ grind nigga?

But that’s a stupid question. Kelly knows he’s the bump ‘n’ grind nigga. Why him? Well, he’s obviously more than an Aaron Hall spin-off (even though he shaved his head like Aaron, sometimes carries a staff like Aaron, and uses some of Aaron’s vocal riffs). But somehow, R. Kelly seems deep, conflicted: classically trained vocalist vs. sex daddy; mom worshiper vs. adolescent-girl lover. People are attracted to that. They like to watch other people working through their pain.

Robert has said that if it had been legal to marry his mother, he would have. Jamie Foster Brown, editor of Sister2Sister magazine, was born in Chicago and has been writing about R. Kelly since he and some friends were singing under the name MGM. She remembers sitting behind R. Kelly at a show one night. Her companion tapped him on the shoulder and asked lightheartedly, “What must your mom think about all this sexy music you make?” According to Brown, Robert stood up and quietly left the theater with tears streaming down his face. His mother had died four days before. He didn’t come out of the bathroom for 30 minutes. “Robert’s emotions are raw,” says Brown. “He’s an extremely sensitive man.”

READ MORE: R. Kelly's Ex-Girlfriend Kitti Jones Details Abuse By Singer

Robert calls himself a “mama’s boy,” and that’s a fine and normal thing. But in concert, he takes it to the next level. Toward the end of his hour-long set at the Spectrum, he begins to sing the Spinners’ Mother’s Day anthem, “Sadie”— dedicated, as always, to his own mom.

Pacing the stage like a lost kid, Kelly stretches the song out over 15 minutes. He starts off all churchy and reverential, but then his voice gets thick with erotic urgency. He prays for her, talks to her, and asks the audience to talk to her. Then he loses it, hopping and bouncing like the Holy Spirit is tugging his soul. “I know some of y’all out there don’t understand me right now,” moans Kelly.

On cue, a big poster of his mom in a limo is lowered so the audience can see the object of his love. “I know I’m going on a long time with this,” he says, sounding like a combo of Al Green and O’Kelly Isley. Anyone can see Robert’s haunted. He asks the audience to pray for her and to her. Either he’s truly losing it, or he deserves an Emmy. He sets this time aside — night in and night out — so he can worship his mother publicly.

“Take your time baby, we understand,” says a woman behind me quietly. “That’s your mama.”

Song over, Kelly leaves the stage and comes back out in a different vest. It’s black patent leather and has the word HORNY embossed on the back in red. He sings the title song from 12 Play: R. Kelly’s personal instructions — how to touch and what to do — for getting a girl off.

If anyone misses a beat, I don’t feel it. All this mother-love and Jesus stuff goes orgasmic. Bizarre? Maybe, but the spectacle does break him out of the safe little sex factory he’s so good at running. He’s been accused by some critics of trafficking in “simulated soul,” but R. Kelly feels. And because of the anguished trip he’s taking onstage, somehow you know he knows there can be a heady, frightening sacredness when bodies come together. He knows that love is a strange thing and that it doesn’t always come in the form we most desire, or the one most acceptable to society. And most important, Robert knows — and knows how to render through song — the often overpowering dynamic of desire. And that, for better and for worse, is a soul singer.

After he sings “12 Play,” R. Kelly stands in the center of the stage and drops his pants. He doesn’t have on any special, cute, or especially revealing drawers — just garden-variety white jockeys. And he stands there, hands in the air like Pavarotti, for a full 90 seconds until the curtain drops. There’s nothing sexy about it. It’s like, I stand before you — accept me. Strange, but gritty. Nothing he’s ever recorded comes close. Maybe this is why he eclipses his contemporaries. He risks the consequences of abandoning his cool pose. He shows personal weakness — rare in black music today.

KELLY used to sing on the streets for money. He used to carry his keyboards out there and make music under the el train, sometimes making $400 a day. With MGM, he won the $100,000 grand prize on the syndicated, Natalie Cole-hosted TV show Big Break. Soon after, when internal disputes had him struggling to get out of a contract with MGM, Kelly met Barry Hankerson, Gladys Knight’s ex-husband and producer of gospel musicals like Don’t Get God Started and One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.

Kelly showed up, depressed, at Chicago’s New Regal Theater, where Hankerson had just closed auditions for one of his plays. But when he sang for some female assistants, they told Hankerson he had to come down and hear this guy. Hankerson eventually helped Kelly out of his legal difficulties and got him signed to Jive records in 1990. By 1991, right before beginning his first album, Robert was introduced to Hankerson’s niece, a young singer named Aaliyah.

READ MORE: Aaliyah's Mother Claims R. Kelly's Backup Singer Lied About Sex Allegations

“I sang for him,” says Aaliyah, “and he liked my sound.” From there, she says, they went to work on what would become Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number. Aaliyah was no amateur. She’d auditioned for TV shows, appeared on Star Search, and had even sung at Bally’s Las Vegas with Knight. Still, Aaliyah says being in the studio was “new to me. I’d get there at 4 p.m. and not leave till 6 a.m. Robert and I are both perfectionists. We’ll go over something a million times to get it right.”

The process was difficult, but she has said she enjoyed it. “Me and him are really… we’re rather close,” she said before wedding rumors started flying. “If I got tired, we’d go watch a movie, go or whatever, and then come back and work. It was a great experience.” Robert appears in all three of her videos, as well as on her album cover, which says, “Written and produced by R. Kelly especially for Aaliyah.” Around her neck, Aaliyah wears a large gold medallion: a silhouette of Robert in his 12 Play album cover pose. Kelly wears a medallion too: a Warner Bros. Tasmanian Devil. He says it’s lucky.

“She’s very self-possessed,” says writer and graffiti artist Upski Wimsatt, who spent a day with Aaliyah and Robert in Chicago for a story last spring. “Almost the first thing he did was insult me.” But things got better: “He and Aaliyah were charming together. It didn’t seem wrong at all.” They hung so tight that Robert ended up inviting Upski to sleep over when it got late. “Aaliyah spent the night, but she didn’t sleep in the room with Robert. She was in another room. Her mom was there in another room too. And Barry Hankerson.”

R. Kelly was leery about Wimsatt seeing him and Aaliyah together, but that didn’t stop them from singing a duet spontaneously. He says that during the course of the day, Robert and Aaliyah held hands and stared into each other’s eyes. “But they weren’t kissing, or feeling on each other’s butts or anything like that — she would lean on his shoulder, maybe. And Robert would say, ‘Aaliyah’s my best friend, Aaliyah’s my special friend.’

“Robert also told me,” says Upski, “that he was in love with ‘someone.’ ”

In the July 1994 issue of Sister2Sister, Jamie Foster Brown writes that “R. Kelly told me that he and Aaliyah got together and it was just magic.” Robert is quoted as saying, “Aaliyah is a very, very, very, very special person. I could say ‘very’ for three years about her, and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

Brown also confirms that the relationship has been going on for some time now: “I’ve been hearing about Robert and Aaliyah for a while — that she was pregnant. Or that she was coming and going in and out of his house. People would see her walking his dog, 12 Play, with her baseball cap and sunglasses on. Every time I asked the label, they said it was platonic. But I kept hearing complaints from people about her being in the studio with all those men. At 15,” says Brown, “you have all those hormones and no brain attached to them.”

One of those people was fired up enough to call the VIBE editorial offices last September, out of what she called “moral indignation.” The caller, who claimed to be in the know, said she thought what was going on with R. Kelly and Aaliyah was “sick.” When pressed for a name, she would only say, “Ms. Snoop with the scoop.”

But Brown, on a lighter note, feels like R. Kelly and Aaliyah might just be a good match, “because Aaliyah has a mature mind, and Robert is such a big kid.” But she also calls him wonderful, intense, engaging, brilliant. “He’s young — not agewise but in terms of personal development. But developing integrity, character — the stuff that the Magic Johnsons and Mike Tysons needed to know — he’s stunted there. There’s a lot for him to learn.”

KELLY’S dressing room isn’t really all that Coolio’s boy Scoop made it out to be. The carpet is kind of dirty, the food standard, low-budget deli fare. The room smells like sweat and feet and old coffee. Only guys are here — maybe because two weeks before, Robert’s bodyguards Tyree Jameson and John Askew were arrested in New York and charged with raping a 22-year-old woman after a show.

Kelly is sitting for a VIBE photographer, wiping perspiration from his face and head, leaning back in an armchair, not smiling or mean-mugging, sipping from a tall plastic cup of ice water. He looks good, but the whole thing is strange: being photographed for a story he refuses — on the advice of attorneys and highly paid advisers — to be interviewed for.

The show was good, I tell him. He nods without looking at me. I ask how he is. He still doesn’t look my way. Then Demetrius Smith, Kelly’s personal assistant, gives me his nicest don’t-even-try-it glare. I’ve been instructed not to break out my tape recorder, pen, or paper, and not to ask any questions. Finally, when Robert looks at me, I try my best to stare him down through the shades. Doesn’t work.

At one point, two fans walk in — women in their twenties. After getting Kelly’s autograph, they ask him about the rumors of his marriage. He just shrugs. They ask if it’s true that Aaliyah is pregnant. He tells them in a low, raspy voice, “Don’t believe everything you read.”

I want to ask what a grown-ass man is doing with a teenage girlfriend. What’s going on with him that he doesn’t want or can’t get with a girl his own age? I want to know if Aaliyah is being ravished and manipulated. I want to know if he’s charming and eccentric — or if he’s all lame and unable to deal with the mind of a grown-up girl. Or both.

R. Kelly speaks softly to me as the shoot is ending. He walks over, shakes my hand, and says, “Thank you. It was really nice meeting you.” He thanks the photographer and then walks without a word into the bathroom. He has taken off his glasses, and I can see his eyes — small, brown, earnest, and plain. Like some of his weaker songs, they give me little. He’s way offstage now — just him and his secrets: his teenage love, his mom, and the strange music in his head. I guess.

 

READ MORE: Fans React To VIBE's R. Kelly May 2002 Cover Story: 'Caught In The Act'

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Karl Ferguson Jr.

Swizz Beatz Is In A Zone...All Of His Own

Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean has a room in his New Jersey home that is essentially a mini-museum, an art house man cave on steroids. He showcased the same room on his Instagram page in 2017, in a video where he gleefully roller skated with a cigar in one hand and a beverage in the other. Straight ahead in the back of the room stands a giant, 20-foot tall wooden sculpture designed by renowned Brooklyn artist KAWS (its companion piece is currently at the Brooklyn Museum, where Swizz is on the board of trustees). On the right wall is a large, two-panel painting by Kehinde Wiley, the renowned black artist who created Barack Obama’s presidential portrait, and around the room are an assortment of creatively-crafted chairs, chests by luxury fashion line MCM, books and other pieces of art. In the corner stands a modest table with a laptop and two 12-inch speakers resting on top.

Last night, Swizz Beatz deejayed an event in SoHo to honor his cover story in the “Freedom Issue” of fashion's Spirit and Flesh magazine. The scene was a vivid illustration of the spaces that Swizz operates in these days: a room full of hoity-toity fashion folks and hip-hop heads alike, servers walking around with trays of finger foods, and clothing racks with an assortment of pieces, as Swizz plays early ‘90s bangers from the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep. With his signature ad-libs (“hanh!”) and energetic, nostalgic song selection, a group of breakers eventually forms a circle with dancers taking turns in the center. “I take hip-hop with me wherever I go!” Swizz triumphantly yelled to the crowd.

A day before celebrating his 40th birthday, Kareem Dean is notably turned down. He opened the door and sauntered down the mini stairway wearing a pair of Bally sneakers, blue sweatpants, and a black hoodie with the word “Poison” emblazoned across the front. He briefly greets me and my colleague and chats about some of the artwork in the room. “This is the biggest one he’s ever done,” he smiles, pointing to the Wiley piece. He then sits down at the table, pours a glass of wine for himself and a rep from his label Epic Records, and explains what to expect from Poison, his first solo record in 11 years.

The album begins with a woman named Aine Zion giving a spoken word poem over searing violins, and is immediately followed by “Pistol On My Side (P.O.M.S.),” the debut single featuring Lil Wayne that he’d release the following day. The song has Swizz’s signature military drums and a piano loop, which later transitions into a beautiful piano solo by wife and 15-time Grammy  Award winner Alicia Keys, and the frenetic, hyperactive mixtape Wayne spitting his signature venomous, extra-terrestrial flows. It’s a theme of Poison: Nas, Pusha T, Young Thug, Jim Jones, The LOX, and others all deliver some of their most inspired verses in years, with Swizz offering timely adlibs, anthemic chants and reverent intros throughout. It’s the first of at least four albums he has on the way: after Poison he’s planning to release an R&B album, an “energy” album, an “acoustic” album, and a “global” album. Oh, and he has another album in the can with Nas, depending on if God’s Son ever decides to release it.

“I’m more dangerous now than I’ve ever been,” Swizz says with conviction.

--

Nine years ago, Swizz Beatz decided to leave music altogether. His legacy had already been solidified. Like all of the other GOAT producers, he had a period of rap that was unquestionably his: the Ruff Ryders era of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, where his thunderous drums and pounding Casio keys sold millions of records for Double R stars like DMX, The LOX and Eve, along with side work for Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, and more. He would later add poppier, more versatile sounds for Beyonce and R&B/pop stars like Mya and Gwen Stefani. If there’s a name in black music over the past 20 years, Swizz has probably worked with them. He attributes the trust artists have in him to his understanding of what makes them best.

“I've been gifted in that area since day one, which is the reason why most of the artists kept me on the choruses and things like that,” he says. “I know concept and I'm so much of a fan of music that I know how I want everybody to sound, not from a Swizz Beatz standpoint, but from a fan standpoint.”

Hip-hop fans were reminded about the Monster–Swizz’s self-ascribed nickname–catalog in February 2017, when he and fellow hip-hop producer luminary Just Blaze competed in a late night beat battle at an undisclosed location in New York City. The Instagram Live stream was trending in real time, and has since been viewed some 1.3 million times. The battle was one of the purest hip-hop moments in recent cultural history. For nearly three hours, both faced off in scratching, making new creations on the spot, and running through their most popular hits. “Everybody in here, you are privileged to be in this space tonight, where we invited you cause we wanted to keep it clean,” Swizz said, nearly 30 minutes into the stream. “...This ain’t no library. We’re turning up for the culture tonight.”

The two producers went back and forth, playing classics from their respective pinnacles: Just Blaze playing the sample-heavy gems from the nostalgic Roc-A-Fella Records heyday, Swizz unleashing the pounding street bangers from the iconic Ruff Ryders era. The battle was close early on, but Swizz saved most of his best ammo for the second hour, beginning to pull away by getting the crowd to sing along to Beyonce and Jay-Z’s “Upgrade U,” Drag-On and Juvenile’s “Down Bottom,” and DMX’s “Party Up.” And in the final hour, Swizz brought out the big guns: snippets of an unreleased track with Jay-Z, DMX, Jadakiss and Nas, a quartet of rap royalty who had never collaborated on the same song together. The spectating Busta Rhymes had a stank face that got more dumbfounded with each verse, and the song itself has become the subject of Internet folklore. “They don’t want no f**kin’ problems tonight!” Swizz exclaimed to an awestruck audience. (Swizz told VIBE that he may hold the song to release later, so it doesn’t take away attention from the rest of the album.) The battle was an illustration of just how accomplished his career had been: tons of records produced, loads of gold and platinum plaques, with radio and street classics alike. Both producers had their share of great songs, but Swizz’s treasure chest of hits gave him the victory.

“I'll battle anybody because I know what I have in my arsenal is my dynamic as a producer even though I never really hired a publicist to talk about it,” Swizz says. “I got respect for all those guys, man. I felt the pressure from all of them at some particular time. When Just came with “P.S.A.” (from Jay-Z’s The Black Album), I went to the studio and probably made about 80 beats. If I hear something that I wish I made, I would go to the studio and make 50, 60 beats until I know that I made five records I could play in the club. I’d go to the studio and make things that I feel personally can compete with that record sonically.”

Despite his usual competitive spirit, for some time, Swizz had grown disenchanted with the music industry. He felt like he was getting exploited by the labels, and the illegal downloads of the pre-streaming era began to take their toll. Swizz was well on his way to his current benchmark of 380 million records sold, and in 2006 he had production on Busta Rhymes’ “Touch It” (reaching No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot 100), and several songs on Beyonce’s hit album B’Day (“Get Me Bodied,” “Ring The Alarm,” “Upgrade U”). There was also the respect of his peers, a steady workload, and the support of his then-future wife Alicia Keys, but he wasn’t happy.

Swizz crafted the future Grammy-winning “On To The Next One” for Jay-Z’s 2009 album Blueprint 3, and considered the song as his exit from the business. “That song was for my album, but I gave it to Jay because I felt his voice was bigger than mine,” he says. He stopped producing music altogether and began to focus on other ventures instead. Swizz wasn’t even touching the royalty checks he was getting from music that he had already released.

 

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The Bally collection zone is out🙌🏽 #ballyxswizzxshok1

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“Theoretically I do what I wanted to do, but on the business front, you're probably a slave. Getting some up-front money making you feel like you're doing something but you're not,” says Swizz. “I had to get off the titty. I had to be a man and really take responsibility for my own life and my kids and my family, and not base it on a fan base that's not loyal like that and the infrastructure that's definitely not loyal. The only way to be a boss in this world is to have ownership, so I started creating situations where I had ownership.”

From there, he began to spread his creative and business wings further. Swizz partnered with Reebok, where he launched a collection inspired by iconic Brooklyn artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. “I'm not coming in here as a big shoe icon or a celebrity,” he recalls. “I'm coming in as a student starting at a lower level because I wanted to have more respect.” He designed the Aston Martin Rapide, became a consultant for luxury watch company Audemars Piguet, and began working with luxury shoemaker Christian Louboutin.  He would later curate a collection with Bally, a company he still works with. Perhaps most importantly, Swizz enrolled in and completed the Owner/President Management Program at Harvard Business School, where he built businesses like his No Commissions art project (more on that later).

“I didn't want that to be my legacy, being this disgruntled producer...blaming other folks for sh*t that I know I can change. I knew I had to get my education up, I had to diversify my portfolio as a creative getting into design, getting into my fashion zone, build up just different layers of what I know that I love,” he says. “It took the music pressure off of me as far as like not being happy with the business side of it, and I built it up to where now, when I come back to it, I don't feel like I'm enslaved.”

The only way to be a boss in this world is to have ownership, so I started creating situations where I had ownership.

Swizz doubled down on his passion for art. As a child, he was inspired by the graffiti he saw around his hometown of the Bronx, and he’s spent the last ten years looking to introduce art to new audiences. “I used to collect for status–Warhols, Chagalls, Sam Francis–to impress guests that come to the house. Now, I hang new and living artists that I know, and it feels better. I collect from the heart.” He and his wife founded The Dean Collection, which loans pieces to museums around the world. But he also aims to give back: this year’s The Dean Collection 20 St(art)ups will give $5,000 to 20 artists, and his No Commissions project with Bacardi combines music and a traveling exhibit where artists can sell their work and keep 100 percent of the proceeds, without the normal commission that art houses or galleries would usually charge.So far, in the six No Commissions shows around the country, 175 artists have sold more than $3.5 million in art while exposing their work to some 50,000 people.

He wants to empower other artists the same way that he wants to empower musicians, by creating a system to give artists royalties. As of now, an artist can create a piece, sell it once, and get none of the future profits as the piece amasses more value over time. He wants to give artists royalties the same way that musicians get them, with artists getting a cut of future sales. Swizz expressed the idea during a speech at the Contemporary Curated sale at Sotheby’s, and according to ArtNet News, art advisor Joel Straus feels the same way: after Swizz’s speech, he revealed plans to share a portion of sale proceeds from a Kerry James Marshall piece with Marshall himself. “It’s always been my belief that artists should be compensated for secondary market sales, just like writers and performing artists,” Straus told ArtNet News. Swizz thinks other art dealers should do the same.

“People are always giving us something and taking it out of the side pocket,” says Swizz thoughtfully. “To be able to give the artist 100 percent, something real, I didn’t see it existing. If you support the art, support it 100 percent. Don’t do it as a business play.”

On To The Next

When he returned to music years after his hiatus, Swizz was determined to do so on his own terms. He signed with Epic Records, but he has an ownership stake in all of his deals inside and outside of music. He considers himself a partner, not an employee: he has multiple calls during the photo shoot with Epic Records President Sylvia Rhone (who he previously worked with at Universal Motown), from boss to boss.

That includes making a record that wasn’t focused on mainstream radio or trying to keep up with trends. Poison features less than a dozen songs, with its guests in street mode. It’s unmistakably Swizz, with its booming bottom ends and catchy hooks, but Swizz also continues to step up his game, even bringing in co-producers from the likes of Bink!, DJ Scratch and Araabmuzik for the first time to push songs over the top. The Nas-featured “Echo” and the Pusha T record “Cold Blooded” feature street narratives over soulful, orchestral arrangements that some may see as uncharacteristic from him.

It’s unmistakably Swizz, with its booming bottom ends and catchy hooks, but Swizz also continues to step up his game, even bringing in co-producers from the likes of Bink!, DJ Scratch and Araabmuzik for the first time to push songs over the top.

“It took so much discipline not to add drums to those [two songs],” Swizz slyly grins. The lack of percussion makes each emcee’s voice even more of an instrument, with their storytelling providing all the movement each song needs. There aren’t the bloated, star-studded collaborations characteristic of a DJ Khaled album; each song allows its one or two guests to breathe and stretch on their own. Someone with Swizz’s pedigree shouldn’t have to pander, and Poison makes that clear: he’s doing substantial work in the art and fashion worlds, but street hip-hop is where his heart is.

“Everybody goes so big that only the announcement happened, but the actual intake of what you’re supposed to take from it never happened past that particular day,” Swizz said. “I don’t need the instant hype. I’ve been cool since 17. A lot of people think I’m crazy because I took off some real, maybe number one fronting records for Billboard. But I feel like when what you do is passionate, who knows what could be a number one? I’m not all of a sudden bringing some f***ing EDM vibe to try and make a pop record. Don’t compromise your craft for status because the people don’t care anyway.”

The approach, he says, was further validated by J. Cole, the album’s unexpected executive producer. Cole and Swizz have a close friendship, and Swizz initially set up a meeting for the two to contribute to each other’s projects. When Cole was listening to the records Swizz had already done, he suggested cutting songs that were potential hits, but that were “f**king up the flow.”

“I played the first five tracks. He was like, ‘Damn.’ Then I played him the ‘big’ sh*t,” Swizz recalls, his eyes briefly widening while thinking about the songs. “He was telling me everything I was [already] feeling. ‘It’s going to go, but I need more of (the previous songs).’ He was the first person to say that. I could see people’s body language say it, but nobody said it. Not even people on my team.”

Cole also suggested a sparse approach to music videos. “I wanted something different, and J. Cole gave me that. Don’t shoot no expensive videos. Drop the video on WorldStar. Feed it to the kids,'” Swizz repeats. “He and my 18-year-old son were telling me all types of different vibes, and I want to credit [Cole] because I used those things. I’m not too cool to give him his props.”

Then there’s the business of the Nas album that Swizz said they completed. He confirms that the Poison highlight and DJ Scratch-produced “Echo” was recorded during those sessions, and it seems like the aforementioned Nas/Jay-Z/Jadakiss/DMX song was as well, with Nas’ chants of “Escobar Season” on the chorus. When Swizz is asked about the album and a release, he responds hopefully.

“That's his album, so he’s gotta address that. I think it's happening, he's speaking positively about it but that's like something he gotta answer back because he might change his mind,” Swizz says. “But he's in the musical zone, he’s got super fire. There's no reason not to do it. Maybe he wants to do another album, it don't got to particularly be my album. As long as he's making music, that's what I f**k with. I'd like it to be my sh*t, but whenever that man’s got a plan, I let him do his thing.”

40’s The New 30

A month after our first interview, Swizz and his team met VIBE for the photo shoot at Jungle City, the Chelsea, Manhattan studio where Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Drake, and other stars record. Like his home, the multi-level location is similarly full of art—beautiful paintings and photos of artists like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and a young Michael Jackson. Swizz walks in around 10 a.m. wearing a Saint Laurent sweater, a dark denim jacket, and Prada sweats, his eyes peeking under a bucket cap. He just touched down on the East Coast after a flight from Japan, where he was working with Bally and connecting with Nas. He uses his iPhone to show the room stunning samples from a video he shot for the Nas collab, “Echo,” at teamLab, a digital museum in Tokyo. He and Esco spit amidst multiple scenes of dizzying, shimmering lights. “You have no idea what you’re f**king with,” Swizz says. “Once we move past the darkness, this is where we poise on.”The hitmaker found his way back on the charts days earlier with his production of “Uproar,” Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V-highlight inspired by the 2001 G. Dep hit, “Special Delivery.” “I thought it was important for me to help (Young Money President Mack Maine) make sure Wayne was straight cause this album was so important for him,” Swizz emphasizes, adding that he gave additional input on the album as well. “Uproar” was done days before the album was released, but it’s an overwhelming success: it has peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, fueled by the viral Uproar Challenge that has people around the world, including Wayne’s own children, dancing to the song on Instagram.

And he hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal for Poison, either. He’s released a new single every two weeks. First, “Pistol On My Side (P.O.M.S.).” Next, the video for “25 Soldiers,” which challenges Young Thug to tap into his harder, lyrical side instead of his signature melodies. Then “Preach,” a sparse, swaggy offering with Jim Jones. He’s also previewing songs that he just recently recorded with Meek Mill and French Montana. When playing the album for people today, he’s not as calm as he was at his home the previous month: he’s more of the “Showtime!” Swizz, shouting and dancing by the mixing board.

 

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“Swizz said, ‘Bro, I want you to co-pilot this one with me,” Grady Spivey, Poison’s co-executive producer and Swizz’s teenage best friend/business partner shares with VIBE. “After 11 years of [us] not doing a full-fledged studio album, there was a learning curve. We took it very seriously. When we started [this] we were kids 18-21 years old, now we are grown, with focus and vision. We came into this project non-compromised. We wanted to do this album as a contribution to the culture. That was Swizz’s main focus.”

Days later, riding a creative high and still enjoying birthday love, Swizz would glow up on the ‘Gram at a surprise party thrown by Alicia Keys at the World On Wheels skating rink in Los Angeles. As if the party itself wasn’t enough, Keys presented him with a hell of a birthday gift: a stunning, yellow 2019 Aston Martin Vantage (the car reportedly starts at $150,000). Jay-Z would lead a toast to his longtime collaborator at the party, reminiscing on old times. But for Swizz, the celebration will be short-lived—he still has more work to do, as always.

“If I’m not in my son’s top five, that’s a problem,” Swizz insists in the studio.  “That’s the real top five. All the other sh*t I did, he wasn’t around for.”

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