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Digital Cover: The Fast Cast of 'Furious 7' Speeds Back

With the 'Furious 7' sequel hitting theaters April 3, VIBE joins the cast for a digital cover and highlights the 10 best 'Fast & Furious' movie scenes. 

MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE: 10 BEST 'FAST & FURIOUS' MOVIE MOMENTS

Movie theaters might as well sell champagne and Ciroc bottles whenever a new Fast & Furious movie opens. More than just energetic doses of full-throttle action cinema, new editions of the Vin Diesel-led franchise are basically big-screen parties, and the audience members are the VIP guests. Viewers applaud when certain characters make their first appearances, and with every wild stunt and near-death close call, the series’ biggest fans repeatedly lose their minds. There’s no denying it—the Fast & Furious brand is Hollywood’s purest form of crowd-pleasing entertainment.

SEE ALSO: Digital Cover: Tyrese Takes ‘Furious 7? Into Overdrive

Dating back to 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, which was based on the 1998 VIBE article “Racer X,” the franchise has pulled in over $2.3 billion internationally. What began as a glossy look at the underground culture of illegal street racing has settled into an unparalleled compendium of action moviemaking’s greatest tropes: heists, bare-knuckle fighting, and massive set-pieces that’d make Michael “Mr. Transformers” Bay blush. And in the franchise’s latest entry, Furious 7, the stakes are even higher. Fans are in for some seriously next-level visuals—more specifically, the sights of Vin Diesel and his thrill-seeking co-stars parachuting out of an airplane while strapped into cars, Diesel driving through one skyscraper’s glass windows into another skyscraper’s glass windows, and Paul Walker barely escaping a certain death while scrambling off the roof of a whip that’s falling off a cliff—you know, child’s play for the Fast & Furious crew.

SEE ALSO: VIBE Vault: ‘Racer X’ (The Fast & Furious Inspiration)

Except that, sadly, there’s a dark cloud hanging over Furious 7: Paul Walker’s tragic November 2013 death, which delayed the film’s release for nearly a year. Because of that, the usual in-theater Fast & Furious party will at times unavoidably include collective mourning—by the end credits, tears may even flow. But that’s just another byproduct of how deeply invested audiences have become in the Fast & Furious franchise and its stars.

SEE ALSO: Digital Cover: Tyrese Takes ‘Furious 7? Into Overdrive

Furious 7’s commercials show Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto saying it’s their “one last ride,” which, in sequel-obsessed Hollywood, doesn’t seem likely—hey, money talks, and Furious 7 is about to break all the banks. But don’t expect anyone to fret over more adventures for Dom and his merry band of automotive action junkies. As this list of The 10 Best Fast & Furious Movie Scenes confirms, there’s nothing else in the movie game quite like watching Vin Diesel, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, and the rest of their cohorts push expensive whips and laugh in the face of danger.

  1. Brian Takes the Helm - 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

The franchise’s first sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious is the undeniable black sheep in Dominic Toretto’s extended cinematic family. The reasons are obvious: aside from Vin Diesel’s glaring absence, director John Singleton’s (yes, the same Singleton who made Boyz n the Hood and Higher Learning) film mistakes mindless entertainment for unbridled looniness.

In 2 Fast 2 Furious’ opener, there is however the joy of watching the first film’s co-captain, Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), officially become the man by out-driving a ton of roadsters in the brightly lit streets of Miami. You can imagine millions of Fast & Furious lovers first solidifying their undying love for Paul Walker as he speeds off that lifted-up bridge and leapfrogs over Michael Ealy.

  1. Underground Racing Kings - Fast & Furious (2009)

Consider this the most unlikely and craziest kind of couple’s therapy. The couple in question: Dom and Brian, whose friendship wavers throughout Fast & Furious, which reunited Vin Diesel and Paul Walker with franchise O.G.’s Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. In the flick’s most impressive bit of overboard mayhem, Dom and Brian join forces to chase a villainous goon (played by Laz Alonso) through a secret tunnel that connects the U.S. to Mexico. Missed opportunity: not using Philly Most Wanted’s “Cross the Border” as the scene’s background music.

  1. Car, Meet Yacht - 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

Okay, so 2 Fast 2 Furious isn’t a total wash. In addition to the aforementioned opening sequence, this Diesel-less sequel should be commended for introducing one of the Fast & Furious franchise’s most important components: its humor, supplied here by perennial one-liner king Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson). This scene, in which Brian and Roman have to drive their car straight onto a yacht in order to save Brian’s girl, Monica (played by Eva Mendes), exemplifies the franchise’s uncanny ability to combine high-flying action with perfectly timed comic relief. It’s the blueprint for all of the future playful banter later shared between Tyrese and Ludacris.

  1. The Great Train Robbery - Fast Five (2011)

Everything changed in Fast Five—and for the better. Before the franchise’s fifth entry, the Fast & Furious movies were delicious junk food for car fetishists, but in this 2011 edition, the influences evolved from Autoweek to Ocean’s Eleven. And what better way to kick off a balls-to-the-wall heist movie centered around swanky automobiles than to pull off a breathless and impossibly over-the-top train robbery in which the stolen goods are, yes, fancy sports cars? It makes George Clooney and Brad Pitt’s schemes seem like amateur hour.

  1. The Race That Began It All - The Fast and the Furious (2001)


Everything you love about the Fast & Furious movies traces back to this, the first installment’s tone-setting race between then-enemies Dom Toretto and Brian O’Conner, the latter working as an undercover detective in 2001’s inaugural The Fast and the Furious. It’s the first of the franchise’s now-countless number of supercharged action sequences, with the two eventual BFFs engaging in one hell of a pissing contest—in this case, though, said contest involves them defying their mortality while zooming past oncoming trains and Paul Walker surviving multiple Vin Diesel ice grills.

  1. The Parking Garage Battle - The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)


While some may consider this Japan-specific sequel to be both random and pointless, since it’s the one entry that almost completely deviates from the franchise’s main cast, Tokyo Drift is notable for being director Justin Lin’s first time in the driver’s seat—Lin, of course, would go on to direct the next three installments, steering the Fast & Furious brand into popcorn heaven. And Lin’s knack for extended bits of glorious automotive adrenaline rushes began with this, a claustrophobic display of “drifting”—or letting your whip glide across the surface during an altogether dangerous turn—set in a tightly compacted garage.

  1. Dom vs. Hobbs - Fast Five (2011)


Depending on how you look at it, this scene from Fast Five is either the franchise’s funniest moment or its best car-free action sequence. Its humor comes from the shot where Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson (playing one of the film’s antagonists, who’d, of course, eventually join Dom’s crew) stand face to face and are magically the same exact height; its greatness, however, comes from its brutality and the thrill of watching two of Hollywood’s coolest bruisers do some no-holds-barred scrapping. It’s a good thing Vin Diesel’s earned so much good will playing Dom Toretto, too—otherwise, it’d be kind of absurd to accept that he could ever take The Rock.

  1. The Bank Vault - Fast Five (2011)


The incredible climax in what’s arguably the series’ best movie, Fast Five’s bank vault heist is the franchise at the height of its powers. Staged with finesse and the usual I’m-the-man showmanship by director Justin Lin, this jaw-dropper of a sequence—where Dom’s team lifts a massive vault from a corrupt police station and drives it around the street of Rio De Janeiro—taps into the later sequels’ dynamite blend of levity and blockbuster visuals.

But it’s also an example of something the Fast & Furious movies rarely get credit for: intelligently convoluted screenwriting. To better understand why critics should use the word “intelligent” more often when discussing these films, check out how Dom and his squad manage to walk away with the cash.

  1. The Airborne Hug - Fast and Furious 6 (2013)


With each new Fast & Furious movie, the levels of implausibility have escalated beyond measure. That’s not a complaint. Nobody buys a ticket for these flicks to see subtlety and realistic action—they drop $25 on a ticket, stale popcorn, and a flat soda to watch Vin Diesel’s gang perform wonderfully ludicrous stunts, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a stunt more unbelievable than what Paul Walker does in this standout Fast and Furious 6 scene. In the midst of a wild chase that features a tank crashing down a highway bridge, Diesel’s Dom laughs at both physics and gravity by flying through the air to catch Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty.

  1. The Neverending Runway - Fast and Furious 6 (2013)


Was there ever any doubt that this sequence would take the top spot? It’s essentially the entire Fast & Furious series thrown into one epic action extravaganza, one that, like the franchise as a whole, simultaneously spits at logic and entertains like none other. Granted, it also requires you to turn your brain off and not question why there’s an airplane runway that measures around 300 miles long—it’s better to ignore that meaningless detail.

After all, the seemingly endless runway allows for every single cast member to get in on the action, whether they’re trading punches, body-slamming folks onto the roofs of cars, or recklessly driving alongside a speeding plane. By the time Vin Diesel zooms out of the exploding plane in, naturally, a wicked sports car, all you can do is smile, clap, and wonder how in the god Dom’s name they’ll top this scene in Furious 7.

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21 Reasons To Love H.E.R.

Ten years ago, Gabi Wilson wanted to be the “next big thing.” The platform was Radio Disney’s contest of the same name, with listeners voting on their favorite artist. Charming and talented, the Bay Area native was confident that her pathway would be paved in gold. But it wasn’t Wilson’s time just yet, as she lost to pop singer Jasmine Sagginario. “If I was the next big thing, it would be everything I’ve dreamed of,” the 11-year-old said at the time. To Wilson’s credit, her dream wasn’t far-fetched.

There was nothing wrong with Gabi Wilson. A darling to YouTube’s music cover lovers and a favorite among industry insiders, Wilson’s powerful voice gathers the soul in silk, allowing harmonic melodies to wow any listener. In a digital age where every aspect of one’s image seemed to matter the most, Wilson decided to take herself out of the equation and allow the music to take center stage. In 2015, Wilson uploaded a SoundCloud cover of Drake’s “Jungle” under a ghost account and the rest is R&B history.

Wilson was now known as H.E.R. (Having Everything Revealed) with the music doing just that — allowing everyone to relate without an impulse to dig into the singer’s personal life or social posts. Her callings of love on “Focus” were now their own while the poetic truths on “Pigment” were fluid in nature. It wasn’t a secret that Wilson was also H.E.R. as she shared plans with the lifestyle site Stuff Fly People Like in 2015 to release her first EP under that acronym.

The mysterious allure—H.E.R.'s facial features are usually obscured on all project artwork and onstage—along with the molding of her first two EPs, have made her an instant staple in R&B today. As a selfless artist, H.E.R. has proven that R&B can thrive without heavy production or a marriage between hip-hop’s current fascination with trap beats. With five 2019 Grammy Award nominations, including Best New Artist and Album of the Year for her eponymous compilation album, the singer’s move to hide in plain sight worked out for the better.

“My reason for being anonymous in the beginning was to make it about the music and really keep the focus on the music, so being nominated is like, ‘Wow, I did exactly what I wanted to do,’ which was to be recognized for my music and nothing else,” H.E.R. softly reflects over the phone. Producing music and playing instruments like the piano and guitar have allowed the singer to deliver her talents on a silver platter to listeners. “I just feel very blessed because the intent was to be recognized for the music, so these nominations are so true to making it about the music and the celebration of music. I’m so thankful. It’s kind of crazy.”

Much like Beyonce’s refined approach to surprise albums, H.E.R.’s anonymity has been carbon copied a few times, even to the levels of one artist absorbing her sound and non-image. “It’s definitely flattery. If anybody sees anything that’s working they’re going to try to emulate it or copy or try to use it in their live show,” she says generally of her effect. “People have always tried to imitate, but at the end of the day, no one can do me better than I can do me, you know? But I wouldn’t be bothered. Some people can get annoying with it (Laughs), but at the end of the day, you can only be so successful doing what somebody else is doing.”

H.E.R.’s Grammy nods are also a testament to the institution’s abnormal history. On the polished side of the coin, the singer’s five nominations are akin to host and mentor Alicia Keys. Eighteen years ago, Keys took home five gramophones including Best New Artist and Best R&B Album for her debut, Songs In A Minor. Keys' tied with those of Ms. Lauryn Hill, who took home five awards in 1999. Hill won the Album of the Year category for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, making it the first hip-hop/R&B album to take the crown. H.E.R. could become the next woman of color to take home the award as her album is also in the same category. The jagged side of the coin, however, hasn’t been kind to R&B.

Five R&B categories were cut in 2011. They included "Best Urban/Alternative Performance" (2003-2011), "Best Female R&B Vocal Performance" (1968-2011), "Best Male R&B Vocal Performance" (1968-2011), "Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals" (1967-2011) and "Best Contemporary R&B Album" (2003-2011). The chopped categories didn’t do much to help the pace of R&B, which experienced a shift in identity near the top of the 2010s. Hip-hop, which has always relied on R&B, soul, and funk, continued to do so with R&B facing little to no room to grow. Singers wanted to be rappers and rappers wanted to be singers, leaving behind harmonies and falsettos R&B heads loved deeply. But the sonic shift wasn’t without a few gleams, as artists like Frank Ocean, Jhene Aiko, Jazmine Sullivan, and Miguel helped bring a balance back to soul and R&B. With H.E.R., the precision is razor sharp as she combines classical notes with pulsating 808s to create a time machine of the genre’s past and future.

As talk of R&B’s resurgence to the mainstream continues, H.E.R. is aware that she’s at the center of the conversation. Instead of feeding into the hype, the singer-songwriter is just as focused as ever.

“It’s a great expectation. It’s a great thing to hear people putting me up to this standard and putting me on this pedestal and expecting greatness from me, but at the end of the day, I’m just trying to be a better me as an artist musically,” she says. “As a person, I’m just trying to be better than I was yesterday and continue to elevate. I keep hearing all this stuff. It’s so easy to second-guess and overthink everything you’re doing now that people are watching. That’s when it starts to go downhill when you give in to that pressure. I have to keep doing me. I have to not look at what everybody else is doing, or what everybody else thinks should be happening right now. I can’t listen to the outside opinions of people who weren’t really there in the beginning, who weren’t embracing who I was, who were always jumping from wave to wave or what’s popular or what’s new. I can’t be that person because that’s when it goes downhill. I’m definitely trying to stay away from that mentality.”

Just last year, the singer headlined her very first tour in addition to endless festivals: Atlanta’s One MusicFest, Essence Music Festival in New Orleans and Brooklyn's Afropunk. At the latter fest, nearly all the attendees, draped in pan-African garb and crystal bra sets, rushed over to her stage to hear their favorite songs like “Carried Away,” “Every Kind of Way” and the tender duet “Best Part” with Daniel Caesar. The crowd, a mirage of black faces spanning the diaspora, were living one experience, which happened to be powered by H.E.R.

“When I think about the reason why I dropped the projects under the name H.E.R., the people resonate with it so much because H.E.R. is everyone,” she explains. “All my stories have no face attached to it, there’s no name attached to it, so it’s like you have no choice but to be attached to the feeling and the emotion and relating it to your personal diary. A lot of people come to my shows and they say, ‘That’s my diary, she’s speaking my life. I relate to this so much.’ It’s like they have no choice but to put themselves in that position, put themselves in connection to my music.”

The storyline and dynamics between singing and poetry are woven together so effortlessly on "Pigment." Bianca Jeanty, the co-founder of Minorities in Media says about one of her favorite H.E.R. tracks: "It goes through all of the emotions of a relationship at its peak and its downfalls. The song is relatively short, but there are some relationships that feel like that. Rich moments that feel like forever. And the reason why this song is so powerful to me is because sometimes there isn't a fairy tale ending. And that's real."

This year, H.E.R. plans to spread her verbal love language with new music, take on bigger stages like Coachella, and embark a European tour. “I’m so thankful for all the stuff that happened in 2018 and now 2019 is even crazier,” she gushes. “There’s so much going on, so many places that I’ll be going to that I haven’t seen, but I’m definitely going to drop an official album, a real album because the projects that I dropped weren’t even official. They were just EPs and it’s about elevation this year.”

Other women in R&B are elevating as well, presenting stories and perspectives outside of their own. Fellow soul sisters like Ella Mai, Queen Naija, Summer Walker, and fellow Grammy nominee Jorja Smith have provided a sonic safe-space to not just feel, but to enjoy love jams again. Kuk Harrell, Grammy Award-winning vocal producer, and engineer shares, "I love people that come out and just...they create a new lane, they create a new sound and everybody just jumps on it." Creating that space where the old feel of R&B can live with its new packaging is special to witness, and we all are enjoying the view, to the point that even today's young rappers want that old thing back. "I love H.E.R.'s music because it reminds me of the R&B that I grew up listening to," says Cali rapper Saweetie.

“I think real music is coming back, real lyrics,” H.E.R. explains of her peers. “A lot of people are writing more songs that mean something, that have a story. A lot of people are using real instruments, which is really cool to hear. I think it’s in a good place, in an authentic place. We’re not really in the age of gimmicks anymore. It’s real artistry, normal people just being themselves on stage and in the music, which is really cool to see.”

This year’s Grammy Awards ceremony aims to build a bridge between the past and present with tributes to the late Aretha Franklin and the much talked about Motown 60th anniversary performance event happening later this week. As living legends like Diana Ross and Fantasia belt the songs we love so much, H.E.R. will be present with a performance of her own, reminding us that the future of R&B is here.

As much as H.E.R. believes in herself and her abilities, a host of friends, collaborators and cultural critics believe in her twice as hard. Here, 21 creatives reflect on all the things they love about the 21-year-old’s artistry and what exactly makes her a remarkable force in R&B.

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9th Wonder

Grammy-nominated producer, professor and founder of Jamla Records

I'm a historian by nature so I watch trends and I watch culture. Everything repeats itself whether we're talking about fashion and especially music. When I was 20 years old, D'Angelo was my version of something 20 years before that, which was Marvin Gaye and Stevie [Wonder]. So D'Angelo was my Marvin Gaye and Stevie. I think with H.E.R., Ella Mai and Daniel Caesar, Anderson .Paak, BJ The Chicago Kid and a myriad of R&B artists who are budding believe in the music and believe in the feeling. That's similar to another resurgence that happened in the '90s but everything runs in cycles, history repeats itself and nothing is new under the sun.

Aliya S. King

New York Times Bestselling Author

I hope it's okay that I choose "Best Part." I know it's a duet and not technically her song, but I was driving down the street when I first heard it and I had to pull over and ask Siri who it was. It hit me that quickly and viscerally. I'm lucky that I was able to have a front-row seat to the birth of the neo-soul movement in the ‘90s. I saw early shows with artists like D'Angelo and Erykah Badu and many of us walked away knowing we saw history being made. That's how I felt the first time I heard her music. This is special.

Angela Yee

Media personality

She's one of my favorite artists and even though she's young, her music feels nostalgic. It's beautiful for when I'm feeling in love and beautiful when I'm feeling mellow and emotional. In this age when everyone is sharing everything, I appreciate the mystery she encompasses.

Arin Ray

Singer-songwriter

Sheʼs a wonderful artist and so full of potential and promise. As you can see from the five Grammy nods, H.E.R and her team have got something really special going. Sheʼs a really good person too and carries herself like a true star. I think she fits the blueprint of what an artist is to me. As for the future of R&B, I think weʼre moving in a great direction. I think along with H.E.R. there are a lot of artists coming up, pushing a wave thatʼs very promising for the genre. Iʼm very intrigued to see what it looks like in the next few years.

BJ The Chicago Kid

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter

I think the future of R&B is safe with her contribution. Fans resonate with the vibes and emotion her music evokes. Her sound is very right now while still keeping the soulfulness of the R&B we grew up on alive.

Carolyn Williams

EVP, Marketing at RCA Records

When I look back on 2018, I’m just so proud of H.E.R. I’m proud of what she’s been able to do as far as inspiring people to really focus on music. This is what it’s all about. It’s not always about imaging and visuals and your social game. I love the fact that she really forced everyone to focus on music because we are in the music business and this is what it is supposed to be about.

It’s not just H.E.R. I think a lot of these artists kind of forced you — they did things differently and it wasn’t always about imaging. It was really about amazing new music, and I think a lot of artists have followed in that footstep, in that path.

Cautious Clay

Singer-songwriter

We worked together on a brand new song and we finished it the same day, so she’s fast, personal and has her own unique melodies, which I respect the sh*t out of. On top of that, she comes up with really good lyrical ideas and is just self-sufficient. My favorite song would have to be “Focus.” That song to me is just so undeniable and it really reminds me of Ravel or Claude Debussy, a classical song, but it’s R&B at the same time. It’s just a really beautiful record that’s going to stand the test of time.

Carrington Brown

Drummer for H.E.R.

With “Focus” I can remember hearing it for the first time, knowing once it dropped nothing would ever be the same. Fans love the direct connection, life application, and the transparency. Most artists try to put themselves on a pedestal above everyday people but she meets them right where they are and lets you know we’ve all been there. I like that she’s limitless and the future of R&B with H.E.R. in it is looking like a run further than the eye can see.

 

ELHAE

Singer-songwriter

I think apart from her voice being as beautiful as it is, I’m more in awe of the sheer skill that comes with it. Her control is stuff of legends, and I’m sure she’s on her way to being just that. Adding to that, she plays every instrument in the book (Laughs). She’s a great talent and I believe she’s a great example for upcoming aspiring artists.

Ella Mai

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter

I'm a big fan of H.E.R. and I think our sounds are related to bringing back what we all grew up on and what inspired us. We’re not even trying but it's not even a conscious decision, it's just like the music we love to make.

Kiana Lede

Singer-songwriter

“Best Part” is my favorite H.E.R song. I love that she made a classic love song and not many people can do that anymore. She’s a strong leader in the movement that is putting female R&B at the forefront of the music industry right now.

Landstrip Chip

Singer-songwriter, producer

I worked with her once, she’s real laid back and chill. I like her energy and her passion for music. Everything starts with the music. I feel like R&B is going in a good direction right now, and as long as young artists continue to put out solid bodies of work, the genre will continue to thrive in this new age of the music era. Right now, I’m liking “Carried Away.” I like the melodies, the guitar, the mix on the record is solid. Reminds me of some old Justin Timberlake.

Masego

Musician and inventor of TrapHouseJazz

I love when a real musician, a real vocalist, and a real songwriter wins. She’s real kind, genuine and a timeless human being.

Ro James

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter

I don’t mean to be predictable but I LOVE “Focus!” It’s the VIBE! The energy, the emotion, her voice, her runs, her tone. And the production by my brother DJ Camper. I think the fans love H.E.R.’s musicality, her sultry tone, her runs, what’s she’s talking about. Women can relate with her truth. She provides a vibe for sure. She definitely fills a void that we’ve been missing in music from a woman.

And the future of R&B, we’re back after they said the genre had died. I’m proud to be a part of the resurgence. We all come with our own take on R&B.

Robert Glasper

Grammy-winning singer and producer

I was in L.A. for the Grammys and I am guessing it was 2013. At that time she was Gabi and I came downstairs in my hotel and Gabi and her manager Suzette Williams were down there. I guess Gabi was 15 or something. Her manager came over to me and said, “I have a singer and she really loves your music. Would you mind going over to her to chat and take a photo?”

So I went over there and I met her and we took a picture. Her manager said, “She looks up to you a lot,” and so I gave Gabi my email and told her to send me some music. Push came to shove two years later and I ended up doing the Nina Revisited... A Tribute to Nina Simone project with Suzette as an executive producer. She shared on the first day that Gabi was doing her debut show at SOBs in New York so I surprised her and shared how proud I was. I didn’t see her anymore after then. A year later, my manager gets an email from Gabi’s people asking to clear one of my trio songs for her first EP which turned out to be H.E.R.

I just remember being in awe of her when she was at SOBs as a teenager. She took the music so seriously and she played every instrument and I felt back then, “Yo, she is gonna save the genre of R&B.” I said that back then because even talking to her she is an old head. She is a super old head and she has so much reverence for the history of music in general and not just R&B, but definitely R&B as well.

Sammie

Singer-songwriter

My favorite song thus far by H.E.R. would be “Focus”... that’s truly every woman’s desire. They want a man’s undivided attention so the concept alone draws you in and is very relatable. H.E.R. is extremely gifted, she writes, she plays, she’s a strong live performer as well. I also love that her new success has opened doors for true traditional R&B to be propelled once again, back into mainstream audiences.

Sevyn Streeter

Singer-songwriter

My respect level for an artist such as H.E.R. is at such a peak level because she cares and it shows. Only someone with a deep understanding and admiration for music and creativity can create the way she does. H.E.R.’s ability to sing from her soul but to also play so many instruments from the bottom of her soul speaks to her God-given talent. “Focus” was my introduction to her and I look forward to focusing and enjoying H.E.R.

Shane Adams

Visual Director for H.E.R.

“Losing” is my favorite record by H.E.R. Sonically, it’s such an amazing record and personally, we’ve all been there before. This generation needed music that we could say ‘You don’t know nothin bout dis here.’ 20 years from now to our kids. H.E.R. provides that. I like that we’re growing every day and that the band we’re delivering to the masses is one my family and I can be proud of.

Tone Stith

Singer-songwriter

It was amazing touring with H.E.R. last year. It was great to watch her interact with her people, her band and just how she controls it and she is just like, ‘This is what I want, this is when I want it, this is how I want it.’ My favorite had to be coming out on her set and singing “Could've Been” together because we just get in the moment. It was great being a part of that because that's a real artist and I took a lot from that.

Trevor Jackson

Actor and singer-songwriter

My favorite song from H.E.R. is “Focus” because her voice sounds like butter. Fans love that her raw talent shines through her music, there is no gimmick behind H.E.R..

Van Jess

Singer-songwriting duo

“Focus” has to be one of my favorite songs. It puts you in such a trance. One of those simply beautiful and classic feeling R&B records. I love that she’s got this laid back down-to-earth real energy and is bringing musicality and real vocal talent back in an amazing way. ~ Jessica

“Say It Again” is that song for me. I get so many feels every time, because I can relate to the lyrics. I love that she is herself and has stayed true to who she is as an artist. She’s given us great music thus far, and I’m excited for her next release. I feel like the future of R&B is in good hands. I like how authentic everyone is when it comes to expressing their art. There are so many dope R&B artists out right now. It feels like a renaissance. ~ Ivana

Wyclef Jean

Grammy-winning artist and producer

H.E.R. is that rare artist who is also a super talented musician. She took her time and perfected the craft. Her genuine dedication to real music is reflected in all of her songs.

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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.”

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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.

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“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.

 

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