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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”