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Digital Cover: Fetty Wap 'From My Trap To Yours'

Fetty Wap covers VIBE's July 2015 summer issue. Read his full cover story inside. 

New Jersey is hot again. Not just because it’s June, but Paterson’s own native son, Fetty Wap, currently has multiple singles blasting through speakers in every corner of the map. “Trap Queen,” his street hustler’s ode to ladies with the magic touch, has become this summer’s hip-hop anthem. But even with his rapid-fire success, it’s still family first for the 24-year-old rap singer.

Photos by Derick G
Written by Mikey Fresh
Video by Cutino Films
Styling by Brookelyn from Young & Reckless
Post Production By Eric Jordan, Andy Lezzo & Jason Chandler

Fetty Wap is hanging out the window of his white four-door Maserati, smacking his hand against the outside of the door like a military drill sergeant. “Pay attention, yo!” he yells. He looks ahead at the stationary black Suburban truck directly in front of him, and to the rear, at the parked black Porsche Panamera. Both vehicles are filled with the rapper’s Zoo Gang family and a couple of burly Haitian dudes, yet no one is paying any mind to hip-hop’s hottest new artist of 2015. So he repeats himself, louder and more ferociously this time. Harder banging. “Pay attention!”

The 24-year-old rapper just finished his first photo shoot with VIBE and now time is ticking on this beaming May afternoon in Miami. He has 20 minutes to get from Little Haiti to Miami International Airport to pick up a friend. One of Fetty’s closest childhood friends and confidants, Monty, rides shotgun with a huge Gold Cuban link chain dangling from his neck and wears an uneasy expression. “They’re focused on the wrong things,” Fetty mumbles.

The rising star has no choice but to stay on his P’s and Q’s. With his contagious breakout hit “Trap Queen” becoming one of the biggest songs of the year in any genre, he’s had to navigate the pothole-riddled route from Soundcloud obscurity to Billboard chart topper, seemingly overnight. It all started back in Paterson, New Jersey, a city that’s separated from the Big Apple by merely a 40-minute drive over the George Washington Bridge, but might as well be a million miles away, with its intense poverty and dearth of homegrown luminaries before Fetty. From those impossible beginnings, the man born Willie Maxwell formulated his own sound, one that he affectionately calls “ignorant R&B” (think Gucci Mane with melody). “I wasn’t even trying to get money from my music at the time,” the rapper-singer hybrid remembers of his early work. “I just wanted people to listen.”

Fetty started seriously recording music around 2008, yet by the end of 2013 he’d come up with the melody-injected ode to down-ass chicks that’d soon plant his flag firmly on the rap map. Bobby Shmurda, 2014’s rap rookie of the year with the breakaway hit “Hot Nigga,” was first to take notice, bigging up “Trap Queen” on his Instagram account last year. In February, Kanye West brought Fetty on stage during the Roc City Classic NBA All-star Game in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park to perform what he called his favorite record of the moment. And in May, Drake knighted the Lyor Cohen-helmed 300 Entertainment signee by hopping on the remix to his follow-up single “My Way,” giving an instant boost to the karaoke staple that LeBron James was caught singing in the sidelines during the 2015 NBA playoffs.

With the speedy pace at which Fetty’s life has been moving this year, it’s understandable why he’s a bit annoyed by his crew’s current lackadaisical state. But they’ve taken notice and are ready to roll. The father of two folds his 6’2” frame into his car and looks forward. Wap complains of the black leather being "too damn hot" as his shirtless back settles into the driver’s seat. His most recognizable characteristic -- or lack thereof -- is his left eye, which he lost as a young child due to congenital glaucoma. The handicap bothered him when he was younger (as you might imagine, kids can be douchebags) but these days he seems extremely comfortable with himself. “People used to be scared to come up to me because of my eye,” he says with a slight grin and not one ounce of insecurity. “But it’s way different now.”

CLICK HERE TO CONTINUE TO PAGE 2 OF FETTY WAP'S VIBE COVER STORY.

 

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Stacy-Ann Ellis

Winston Duke Can’t Be Boxed In

Scowling to FKJ and Masego’s “Tadow” is a pretty nefarious task, but Winston Duke doesn’t so much as crack a smile when its svelte saxes and warped keys slice the tense air of a Midtown New York studio. Marking the midpoint of the Black Boy Joy playlist he curated for Spotify, the 6’5” actor stares down the camera with a glare that could send a mischievous tot running off in tears. From a white chair that looks embarrassingly miniature beneath him, he hunches forward at the lens and the cluster of people standing behind it, hands firmly clasped. Turn your head to the side. A little bit more. Duke pivots slowly, inching his chin to the left with surgical precision, eyes cutting the wall as if he’s sizing up someone no one else in the room can see.

There is a wrinkle in his olive Rag and Bone shirt. His stylist urgently flocks to his side to tug and tuck, opening the floodgates for the rest of glam — the groomer dabs his Adam’s apple and brow bone, his barber is armed with a cape, and his rep analyzes his pant cuffs from behind the computer screen — to tend to things that have hardly shifted in the two minutes he’s been sitting there. Winston’s facade hasn’t softened for the entirety of the first look, but by the time he stands to review the images, Machel Montano’s vibrant and percussive “Take It Slow” tumbles out from the speakers. Duke breaks form, unable to refrain from softly singing along with the Trinidadian soca artist, a hometown hero, and his body instinctively sways to the riddim. “Making up for not going down to Carnival this year, huh?” I tease from behind the Canon. And for the first time within the hour, he cracks a toothy smile and nods, still dancing.

While our team wonders what he's really thinking, we forget Winston Duke knows how to commit. He's a damn good actor. We’re in the presence of a man whose entire day job is to master the art of staying in character. As he floats from set-up to set-up, he comes alive in different ways, carrying with him the traits of all the versions of him we’ve seen on the big screen so far: The dominant stance and steely disposition of M’Baku from Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the grit of a tethered Abraham and the glee of Gabe Wilson from Jordan Peele’s new film Us. Duke can be whoever you want or need him to be when the camera’s rolling, but sitting face-to-face to figure out the real Winston is the true experience.

Enough time spent with the Yale-trained thespian will reveal that he’s quick on his feet when it comes to the creative realm. Duke plucking a story from thin air is impressive, and watching him do so in real time is a downright treat. When I meet him in the book-lined Reading Room of the art dealer chic Whitby Hotel a week or so prior, he’s been mouthing off all day. As we learned from Black Panther, Duke knows how to be a larger-than-life scene-stealer when he wants. Right now, however, the man who cemented his cinematic entrance as an intimidating mountain warrior is trying to conjure up a tender tale about critters.

“It could be a story about an ant that learns to fly because he wants to find love with a fly,” he says, entertaining a tangent he stumbled on about his enamoration with stories. The conversation began with his scary-movie preferences but landed on the fact that he’s drawn to narratives about almost anything. “I love stories period, it’s just gotta be tied to something. It has to be about something. That story I just described is about love.”

Without pause, we chuckle at the charm of his Pixar-perfect non-sequitur, but admittedly, it would be interesting to see where his mini Bug’s Life saga could go. He’s clearly interested, too. “That’s actually a cool idea,” he quietly repeats to himself, sussing out the synopsis to see if it could grow legs. “An ant? An ant that learns to fly because it’s in love with a fly …”

There’s more where that came from, but he doesn’t have time to tell it. His four handlers for the day gently call out the five-minute mark to wrap up an interview that has, presumably, gone on for an hour, but Duke isn’t done yet. Without truncating his stream of thought to honor the time crunch, he leans deeper into his last response. Hint taken. An additional 10 minutes have been granted, and although Duke has offered to shorten his responses to accommodate as many “last questions” as possible (and continues talking even as he gathers his belongings to leave), he simply has more to say. A lot more.

“I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” —Winston Duke

The Tobago-born film star has been stateside for more than 20 years, even attending undergraduate school in icy Buffalo, N.Y., but still has not adjusted to the bite of winter. “I can’t do anything below 60 degrees, honestly,” he says, cocooned by a massive Canada Goose down coat he refuses to take off, even though we’re indoors. He removes it only for a photo, revealing a linen summer suit and salmon shirt befitting the warm weather he’s accustomed to, then puts it right back on. So, no ski trips for you? He lets out Thor’s hammer of a hearty laugh, one of many that escape from him during our chat. “Ah, it’s never appealed. Snow is not my thing.”

Growing up along 116 square miles of pristine coastline he still refers to as “home,” despite emigrating from the island to New York as a child, means that he still subscribes to a very island lifestyle. Duke, now 32, moves at a nonchalant, easy-going pace, listens more than he speaks, and he considers himself flexible and always willing to change (“I try to maintain a feeling that’s like water.”). Anyone with ears can tell he’s a natural orator; his speech is painted with a charming lilt that intensifies the more comfortable he gets. Although he has a warm heart, his naturally dignified presence and stoic delivery may intimidate someone unfamiliar with a Caribbean’s stern humor.

Duke was insulated by the constant flow of love from his mother, Cora, his sister, Cindy, and the small community of Argyle that became an extension of his family, especially those who spent their days eating and drinking at his mother’s eatery, Cindy’s Restaurant, a local gathering spot. “This old man used to come every single day and spend a quarter to half of his day eating, just talking. He would tell all these stories about what Tobago was like before electricity came,” Duke says. “A lot of his stories were filled with a lot of magic because everything cast a shadow before 6 p.m.”

Young Duke’s mind was molded by this Tobagonian folklore, and Duke soaked in this gift of narration, although, for the most part, it was a private passion. He was a quiet kid whose traditionally-Caribbean family ideally wanted him to take on a practical, reliable profession like his older sister, who went on to become an infertility specialist. However, he knew their route wasn’t his calling. There were stories he soon wanted to tell on his own.

After the abolition of slavery in 1834 under the British Empire, indentured servants were brought into the country to continue the necessary manual labor. As a result, Trinidad and Tobago is now home to a mix of not only African natives but those from East India, Syria and China. Living on the diverse island exposed Winston to a bit of everything as a youth. His island’s major interfaith community meant that both Christmas and Diwali were celebrated by all, and Duke learned about the Bhagavad Gita, one of the Indian holy Vedic books, prior to immigrating to the U.S. He was exposed to the ins and outs of local politics since campaigning prime ministers and visiting presidential candidates would parade right past his house along the main road. And with black and brown bodies occupying all levels of the social and political scale from the homely to the elite, his dominant culture wasn’t squarely rooted in white supremacy. “That’s one thing that I didn’t have to grow up around,” he says. “Not to say that all those -isms didn’t exist where we’re from; it just manifests differently. Especially when you have a black president and prime minister, and then an Indian president and prime minister and coup by Islamic progressives.” These rich, cultural stories and the normalized integration of various lifestyles made it easier for him to see people as people instead of as others.

All this worldly knowledge and exposure did not age him, however. While surrounded by endless stimuli, as a child, Duke was still allowed to be a child. For most of his life there, he was spoiled by the delights of daily sea baths and river swims, endless spicy pepper pot and pone and pelau, toys and playtime. “I was sheltered a lot by a mother and sister and larger extended family that was just like, ‘You’re gonna keep your childhood,’” he says. “Children are treated like children, and men, especially in these family cultures, are babied for a very long time. The boy child is still very much a prize, and masculinity is treated as a prize in that culture. But as a result, I saw all of the women around me fighting a lot of the battles because they didn’t want me to fight it. They didn’t want me exposed. Then coming to this country, they had to shelter me in a whole different way: ‘We don’t want no police stopping you. Survive every encounter. Always take ‘no’ as an answer. No means no.’”

“Let’s put him in a role that white people don’t see coming.” —Jordan Peele

By no means was life handed to Duke on a silver platter; he just had the luxury of being ignorant to it all. “We went through hard times as well, but I never saw those hard times while we were living back at home,” he says. Because his mother owned a restaurant, he was never hungry. She would pay for a car to bring him home from school if she wasn’t able to. “I grew up thinking we had a private car and driver,” he jokes. “It was just a dude that she would pay to pick me up from school.” And because his mother was one of 12 siblings, somebody was bringing even more food to the house. “In my early childhood, I never thought about money. I didn’t have to think about it.”

That notion of not thinking about things has changed plenty. He has grown into this thoughtful, weighty version of himself, and he’ll tell you this. True to Caribbean culture, Duke grew up in a household that had a lot of nicknames for everyone, so until he reached the age of thinking for himself and “defying the rules a little bit,” he was known to his family as Winny. “It was Winny because Winnie the Pooh was a big thing, so Winston turned into Winny, and I grew into Winston. That name seemed like a big name for a child, I think. Winston Duke. It felt big.” Those cushioned Winny years did not reveal his passion for the stage and the screen in the way fans of his might expect. “My creative pursuits were pretty private for a really long time,” he says. “Just my immediate family knew that I wanted to be an actor, and they were always trying to convince me to be a lawyer or doctor until I was just like, ‘I’m not gonna do that.’ It doesn’t make me happy.”

That acting bug didn’t actually break skin until his high school teacher dragged him outside of his comfort zone and pushed him into his first performance: a student-run, 24-hour play. Writers would meet one night to start writing, actors came in the morning to read and memorize the scripts, and the director put it together for it to be performed the next evening — basically, a whirlwind of fatigue with equal parts stress and reward.

“My teacher signed me up for that after she saw me do a presentation in Spanish class.” As a slowly acclimating immigrant going through New York’s schooling system, Winston didn’t know many people, so he kept to himself. “[I was] doing a Spanish presentation, and for some reason, I had a yo-yo in my pocket. I pulled it out and started doing it, going through my presentation.” She requested to speak to him after class, not because he was in trouble like he’d thought, but because she was intrigued. “‘You came alive in front of people counterintuitively,’” he recalls her saying. “‘You’re very shy otherwise, but in front of people, you came alive. I think that you should do the school theater.’ She went and signed me up for the play, and I had to show up.”

The fun of it all set him off, and he started tossing his hat in the ring for small projects, like mall auditions for The CW walk-on roles, but he knew he wanted more. “People who know me are always like, ‘You always seem like you know what you want,’ but it’s not like it comes easy,” he says. Duke has been a beneficiary of the power of his own mind on numerous occasions. He assesses himself almost daily to figure out if a particular course of action is or isn’t working out and how he should reroute accordingly. “I’m always thinking about myself, which comes off good or bad sometimes, but I’m always thinking about how to get better.” As far as acting was concerned, The Yale School of Drama, he surmised, would get him better.

His move to attend the Ivy League garnered praise from his family, as they finally accepted his acting dreams since he was “getting into a school where [his] ethnic mom could gloat about it.” After graduating from University at Buffalo, Duke spent a year diving into the audition process, but after bombing several auditions and waiting on line in several “this could be your big break” cattle calls that went nowhere, he knew more schooling was necessary. “I needed to be more competitive, and I did not have the tools necessary to do the work that I wanted to emulate,” he says. “I needed training. I decided at that moment that I was going to get into grad school. There was no Plan B. I put all my eggs in that basket, and then that worked.” By that, he means those strengthened muscles in stage and camera work, and small gigs snowballed into major TV appearances like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Person of Interest and Modern Family, the former of which sent his island into a tizzy. “There was an outpouring of love. It was all over every magazine in both islands. That was huge.” Then along came his big film debut with the Marvel canon: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and eventually, Avengers: Endgame.

Duke represents what Hollywood is slowly becoming: a diverse pot of TV and film offerings flavored with actors and characters who run the whole gamut of relatable, human experiences. Casting directors are stepping away from the easy way out. Tinseltown has a way of funneling big, tall, black actors (think Good Times’ John Amos, Green Mile’s Michael Clarke Duncan, and Pulp Fiction’s Ving Rhames) into gruffer roles, but consider Us Duke’s way of shaking things up and challenging those archetypes.

“Black Panther was just a watershed, and now with Us, it’s another big cultural watershed because they loved Get Out,” he says, throwing his head back for emphasis. He still has recordings from friends back home of people yelling at Daniel Kaluuya’s character through theater screens. “So, now for me to be in Jordan Peele’s second movie, everyone’s excited.”

The pride his homeland feels for him is a next-level feeling because it’s not just his blood relatives. At this point in his career, the entire Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is his kin. To his neighbors and beyond, “their family has done something, so by extension, they’ve done something,” he explains. “They believed that they also raised me, so, technically, their thoughts, their beliefs, their teachings, their cuisine, their history is now in Black Panther. In Us. In Hollywood. In production meetings. In table reads.”

Everything about Duke exudes intention, right down to his measured mannerisms in conversation. When he reaches a peak realization mid-soliloquy, he’ll rearrange the crossing of his legs, how far away or how close he’s leaning from the table, whether he pivots to face me or lets the full weight of his body fall back into the seat and his hands stretch across the table, fingers tapping its surface in rhythm. Each of his fingertips has his own weight when it lands on the wood, its own felt vibration, to accentuate each point. All of that comes from where he comes from, traits from every person in his community now stitched into the patchwork of his being. “I’m called an ‘all we boy.’ ‘All we’ is ‘alla we.’ So, when they say ‘all we boy,’ it’s our boy. ‘All we boy doing good. Winston’s an all we boy.’”

--

The first time Winston watched Us, the air felt different. After spending two hours as one of 15 bodies in a 150-seat theater, the hugeness of the occasion hung overhead. The hazy sunset, though he’d seen them many times before, felt unfamiliar this time. Despite his spectacle-enhanced eyesight, the colors cast along the sidewalk outside the theater looked different. “I think really good art changes the air,” Duke says ahead of SXSW. The Austin premiere would mark the second time ever seeing Peele’s highly-anticipated Get Out follow-up, and the first time with a crowd — “the public.” While he emits an air of confidence, suppressing the butterflies of knowing your work is officially “out there” is a tall order. “You either feel tense, you feel happy, you feel sad, you feel something, because the air changes. It shifts.”

Duke isn’t lying. When black entertainers, tastemakers and media rivered into New York City, Atlanta, and Los Angeles theaters for simultaneous #UsFirst early screenings — Peele says “it would’ve been a big problem for [him] if black journalists weren’t included in the unveiling of this movie” — the energy shifts were palpable from scene to scene.

“What the hell is wrong with Jordan Peele?” an audience member exclaimed during one of the film’s many twisted scenes. A particularly charismatic bedroom scene in which Duke was the star downright drew an onslaught of cackles from the crowd. Aside from there being no doubt in Duke’s magnetic star power, the spirited conversation between the audience and the screen was confirmation that Us is another moment for both black entertainment and Hollywood at large.

“When people take big swings with love, we are rewarded, but black people — certainly in the film industry — haven’t been given enough leeway to fail, let alone succeed,” Jordan Peele says during an L.A. roundtable. He’s addressing being embraced by former skeptics after Get Out, especially given that both his films can be safely categorized as “weird.” “Like Get Out, I’m trying to push representation into a place and into a type of story we don’t usually see.”

While Us isn’t explicitly about race as its predecessor, Peele doesn’t feel like it has to be in order to shake the table and reframe how black people are seen on screen. Being a dark-skinned black family at the center of a scary movie is enough. “To be able to normalize this idea of representation in film, we have to be ready to represent the spectrum of where we are as African-Americans. I hope it’s therapeutic to be able to see a black family buy a boat in a movie, to be able to play the good guy and the bad guy, and not have it be a movie that has to be about race. I think that’s good within our community, and it’s good for the outside communities to be able to see — don’t put us in boxes.”

Even in casting Duke, the goal was to break the mold a bit. When Peele had originally written the script, he did not picture the Wilson patriarch as physically formidable as Duke, but rather as a nerdy version of himself. When initially considering him for the role, he thought choosing a dad people still see as M’Baku might make the movie less scary. However, talking to him and discovering a different shade to his character made him realize Duke was “not only essential casting because he's a great actor, but [it’s] important to put a guy who wouldn't be cast in a movie like this, for these reasons, in that role. It's an important piece of representation to take a guy that we assume is one type of dude and allow him to be a different type of dude.” Or to put it even more plainly: “Let’s put him in a role that white people don’t see coming.”

When Duke took the part, it was more important to get into the nitty-gritty of why Gabe Wilson exists in this film and understand the life experiences that made him who he is. Gabe was penned as a weekend warrior, Keeping Up With The Joneses, all-American corny dad, so Duke drew from sitcom fathers as inspiration for the jokey nature of his character. “He lives on the balls of his feet,” he says. “Very impulsive and playful, but he’s that dad.”

That dad is spinning water wheelies around a lake on a secondhand clunker named the Crab Daddy, not knowing terror is about to befall his family. To bring out that sense of blissful obliviousness, as well as lean into his larger purpose, Duke sought out dramaturgy help. “I wanted to get inside of the world and the genre, and I wanted to hold fast to the allegory and commentary that was being made, so I wanted my character to be deeply functioned in that space.”

Peele says having Duke offset the on-screen bloodshed by humorously calling out “duh” moments was essential to keeping the edge off his viewers. “I have to have somebody voice what the audience was saying,” he says. “In the case of Get Out, it’s Rod, like, ‘How have you not left yet?’ [In Us], Winston is largely that voice. There’s one moment where Lupita [Nyong’o] takes a step into the unknown, where black people [will think], ‘I don’t know.’ But to have Winston say, ‘Aaaand she left. Your mother just walked out of the car.’ That’s all we need.”

“His function isn’t to see through the veil,” Duke adds, nodding to Gabe’s general unawareness. “His function is to tell the absolute truth how he sees it. He’s sometimes there to say the things that other people don’t want to say, but he’s also there to make fun of things to keep it from not getting too heavy, even though it’s real. That was my job. Jordan respected that. I like to lean into functions. If I’m going to be your antagonist, I’m gonna really push you. If I’m gonna be your clown, funny guy, I’m gonna do that.”

One of the things that Peele was drawn to about Duke is just how seriously he takes the job, no matter how far away from serious the role may seem. “I was really taken with the fact that he wants to dig deep,” Peele says later on the phone. “As I do with all my actors, I asked him, ‘What's the biggest help I can be with you?’ He said, ‘Information. The more information I know the better, the more confident in my performance I will be, the more I can strategize.’” That affinity for proper planning, he says, is common amongst Yale Drama grads, his Us wife Lupita Nyong’o included. As homework, she watched a laundry list of Peele’s horror film suggestions to prepare to play Adelaide Wilson and her doppelganger, Red.  “This is going to be somebody who was in a constant search for a deeper meaning and deeper layer,” Peele continues, “and that thoroughness is something that I've come to really pride in my collaborators.”

Teamwork surrounding character development was another extension of Peele honoring his actors’ processes. Take Gabe’s wardrobe selection, where neither Peele nor Duke could resist the Howard University representation. “We talked about different [HBCUs], and I was like, I think he feels like a Howard guy. I feel like he’s playful, he could be serious, he’s going to protect his family at any cost, so he’s many things at once. That’s another thing about Gabe that I love. He’s not any one thing. He’s sensual, he’s playful, he’s serious when he wants to be. He’s all these things, but he’s still super privileged. He’s not any one thing throughout the story. It feels like Howard,” Duke says — although shouts from the audience at the NY screening begged to differ. Reacting to his lack of “catching it” when first seeing the family, “Naw, he’s gotta be a Hampton man” was heard from either side.

After the screening, hardly anyone went straight home. Instead, they gathered at the hotel’s now-closed bar, hoping for more wine to help them unpack what they’d just seen. Regardless of whether viewers instantly heralded it Oscar worthy, had more questions than answers, were still shaking or wanted to square up with Peele, the clusters of discussion created a deafening hum in the space. Eyes widened and scattered yells ensued as conspiracy theories and thesis-level analyses shot left and right. Duke already knew this project would be a conversation starter he wanted in on.

“Other than it being a Jordan Peele movie, when I read the script, I said, ‘Whoa, cool discussion about power and privilege,” Duke says. “Cool discussion about American culture, about the American dream, about its global proximity to others.’ I want to be a part of that conversation. And to be part of a conversation about the nuances of black psychology. It’s a lot of psychology, and what kind of person does that create? Sorry To Bother You, psychology. Beale Street, Moonlight, psychology. It’s a lot of nuance of black psychology instead of just celebrating your physical attributes and vilifying or fetishizing it. We’re not in a blaxploitation age.” Duke as Gabe helps deliver Peele’s poignant Easter eggs and social commentary. “[Gabe] is intentionally the American dream, and as a result, he is very insecure because he’s not grounded in reality.”

"The boy child is still very much a prize, and masculinity is treated as a prize in that culture. But as a result, I saw all of the women around me fighting a lot of the battles because they didn’t want me to fight it." —Winston Duke

“All throughout the movie, I've used American imagery and the duality of American imagery because that was, first and foremost, the ‘us’ that I was attempting to address,” Peele says. “We as a culture, we're a culture of finger pointers. We're a culture that is xenophobic. This movie is about many different forms that the word ‘us’ can take, but on the level of this country, it conjured the true horror of what's going on in this country right now.”

Real-life horrors indeed. Even Duke found himself scared watching Us, despite already knowing the paths of all the characters. “Even though I read it on the page, watching it on its feet is 100-percent different, and I wasn’t there for the filming of those things, so it was brand new to me,” he says. “I didn’t get to experientially go through that moment, so it’s scary.” And that says a lot, considering the fact that he wouldn’t even call himself a scary movie person. “I think this is the kind of scary movie person I am, which is one that’s wrapped around a really intimate, well-composed story.”

--

I ask Duke if M’Baku will be a hard shadow to step from under, and he instantly recoils, wrinkling his brow at the proposition. The defense mode comes naturally — and rightfully so. “It’s my work, I don’t really wanna step away from it. I don’t wanna step out of it,” he says. “I think it should be a part of a library of work that I’ve done and celebrated. I celebrate it. People sometimes are haunted by the work, but that’s just how you approach it. That’s up to you to think as an individual, the kind of work that you do and put out there and how boldly you attack your work and do things [so] that people will remember other things, too.”

Duke may still be emotionally attached to the character that made him one to watch, but the Jabari tribe leader is not synonymous with him, and neither is the Wilsons’ goofball.

“I think Gabe lives somewhere along my spectrum, [and] I think M’Baku lives somewhere along my spectrum,” he says, assessing where he falls between the two cinematic poles. “I think I’m very many things. I think I’m funny, I’m intellectual. I think I’m vulnerable, I think I’m guarded. Gabe has a lot of my impulsive playfulness, but he doesn’t have my consciousness. At all. Gabe, to me, represents the culture that he belongs to. He’s too privileged.

“M’Baku is at the total opposite end of that spectrum,” he continues. “He’s actually not privileged. He comes from a group of people that are oppressed by the dominant culture of his society. M’Baku is socially conscious. He knows his place within his community and the responsibilities that he has to his people. He has a civic duty and wants to challenge his country to be better but will risk everything to save it.”

So, who is Duke in the middle of all that? It’s all part of the process of figuring him out piece by piece, role by role, extreme by extreme, and in each layer that pulls back, slowly but surely, there will be a lesson, a reflection of a deficit within mainstream conversation. “I’m deeply humbled by it and I tried to understand what it was because people still don’t know me that well, they don’t know who Winston is. But they did respond to M’Baku,” he said last year, responding to a red carpet question about his sex appeal. “I feel what they were responding to is something that felt authentic, something different from what they’ve been consuming before, and the image that presented: A confident man. A confident black man, 6’5”, 250-pound man with stretch marks. A man with a gapped tooth. I feel they were just saying, ‘We want that, we want more of that.’ If we just take the time to understand it, they’re not just lusting, they’re screaming out for something different.”

Looking at Duke’s social feeds will reveal just how much he likes to switch things up. “I’m not a perfect person in any way because I do struggle with some of those same things, too — like if I put this up, people might make fun of me; I do worry about potentially being bullied online — but I have to live. People are going to be people, and I have to be me. I just try to embrace the freedom of what it means to live at this time. I want to embrace the freedom of my time.”

Duke wants his work to drown out tropes that try to limit our frame of thought. “It’s important to embrace what is a word that has become so watered down by our world, not just our culture — the word ‘freedom,’” he says. “Freedom to not be anything in particular. Freedom to self-define: self-define yourself, self-define your language, self-define your verbiage and your lexicon, and choose for yourself what those things are. Choose for yourself what love means because you have to define that. Choose what art means for you. Choose what success means for you. And that, for me, is the biggest thing.”

Winston Duke will be whoever Winston Duke wants to be and will live as freely as he can while doing so. That’s all he owes to himself — no boxes, no borders, no baggage.

READ MORE: 'Black Panther' Star Winston Duke To Portray Kimbo Slice In Biopic

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Photographer: Stacy-Ann Ellis

Stylist: Jenny Ricker, Stylist Assistants: Thomas Kivell, Richard Sifuentes, Tabitha Sanchez

Makeup Artist: Laila Hayani

Groomer: Martyse Lewis

Videographer: Kristen White

Additional Style Credits (Header Image) | Jacket and Knit: Rag and Bone, Trousers: Vince, Boots: Frye, Chain Necklace, and Bracelet: David Yurman

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Sue Kwon

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 amethyst 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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