If R. Kelly Makes Us So Uncomfortable, Why Do We Keep Listening?
Well, it's complicated.
One of the internet’s most distinct qualities is that it’s got the memory of a goddamn minnow. The recent leak of R. Kelly’s Black Panties has brought with it the same questions that we’ve been asking of Kelly for years: Is it OK to like his music despite the fact that he more than probably has had sex with multiple minors?
Lest we forget, these are the same conversations we had in July when he headlined Pitchfork Fest, and before that throughout the years that he was in court for 14 counts related to the tape allegedly featuring him having sex with a minor. (These same allegations played a large part in derailing his Best of Borth Worlds album with Jay Z.) Before that, similar concerns were raised surrounding Kelly’s romance with a then-underage Aaliyah, causing him to pull out of a Vibe cover story that was ultimately published, sans an interview with Kelly himself.
In order to fully understand why Kelly is such an incendiary pop culture figure, consider Michael Jordan. By all accounts, Jordan is—and was throughout his career—a horrible person. He regularly abused teammates, was a horrific gambler who would rig the odds in his favor just to fuck with people, and one time was a total dick to Chamillionaire. He fathered a child out of wedlock, and then denied it for 16 years. Perhaps most egregiously, he refused to offer his considerable profile to Harvey Grantt, who was attempting to oust the racist, vile Republican Senator Jesse Helms in his home state of North Carolina, later explaining himself to a friend by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” But ultimately, those things don’t matter, because there is basketball, an arena where Jordan was peerless. When you watch someone be the absolute best in the world at something, what they do outside of that context seems to disappear. But with R. Kelly—arguably as talented a musician as Jordan was a basketball player in his prime—there is no court, no clearly delineated boundaries separating his private life and the work he does in public. Of course, Kelly’s crimes and Jordan’s numerous character flaws and indiscretions are vastly different: Stiffing a dude on a golf gambling debt has no bearing on how we think of Jordan’s jumper, meanwhile, when R. Kelly coos, “You are now lying with a sex genius,” the person he’s addressing could very well be not of legal age. That’s creepy as fuck, no matter how you slice it. Because his legal issues and subsequent search for public redemption mirrors the arc of much of his musical output, it’s nearly impossible to separate R. Kelly the (alleged) serial statutory rapist from R. Kelly the musical icon. He gives you what he’s got inside of him, for both better and worse.
Kelly, according to many, has a compulsion that causes him to sexually pursue underage women. The fact that this exists in any adult is disturbing, doubly so in a man who refers to himself as “The Pied Piper of R&B,” has sold nearly 40 million albums worldwide, and has made songs about having sex in a kitchen, outer space, and the zoo, seduced women in an opera voice, by yodeling, stripping for them, and who used a 15-year-old Aaliyah as a mouthpiece to proclaim, “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” In pop, older male musicians’ fascination with underage women is nothing new: Ask Jerry Lee Lewis, Steven Tyler, and Serge Gainsbourg. What separates Kelly from deviants past is that he exists in the age of the internet, where news breaks fast and hard, and a surplus of information is at our fingertips at all times.
For better or worse, pop music is largely controlled by narrative. Sometimes it’s PR-generated—we found Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago interesting before we’d heard a note of it because someone told us the dude made it in the woods after a bad breakup. Other times, narrative is driven by media and general popular opinion—how much does Chris Brown have to atone for his actions before it’s OK to admit that “Fine China” is a pretty good R&B single that not enough people are making these days? The story of any properly-hyped record becomes the ultimate work of postmodern fiction, a seamless merging of marketing and myth that we both create and consume. It used to be that first-week record sales didn’t matter, because when an album dropped that might very well be our first introduction to an artist. Now, first-week sales are crucial, because they represent the apotheosis of a greater storyline, made up of interviews, reviews, news stories, thinkpieces, even tweets and barroom chatter. Modern pop music is not dissimilar from professional wrestling, except the scars are often scarily real. Kelly benefits from our tendency to push narrative, too—every time someone calls R. Kelly on being an evil shithead and brings up his past controversies, they’re reaffirming the fact that he not only exists, but matters enough to get upset about.
This all adds up to one of the defining questions of our time: Do we give people who do bad things a pass just because they’re talented?
The answer to this is “it depends.” It’s easy to dismiss art because the artist did something terrible, and it’s just as easy to dismiss an artist’s terrible actions because they produce something great. Taste is not objective, and liking something made by a person who has done legitimately reprehensible shit—Black Panties, a Burzum record, Leviathan’s True Traitor, True Whore, whatever—doesn’t make you yourself a legitimately reprehensible person. But if someone’s actions permeate your mind, clouding your ability to enjoy their work without feeling all icky and weird inside, that’s OK too. Just because one person can interact with certain pieces of culture that someone else can’t doesn’t mean that one person is right and the other is wrong.
It’s hard to find a suitable analog to explain why R. Kelly in particular gets to people like this—though they’re massive in the world of extreme music, there’s a good chance your parents neither know nor care about Burzum or Leviathan. Meanwhile, a guy like John Lennon could beat women without the infrastructure in place that would allow news of his actions to spread like wildfire. There was no TMZ to break the news, no Twitter and Facebook to disseminate it, no means to create an insta-feedback loop to parse it. Everyone knows who R. Kelly is and what he’s done in his life. He’s a monolithic spiritual musical force, and he matters in a very real way to millions of people. He has a unique gift to articulate very real elements of the human condition—sex, spirituality, turmoil, uplift—in a way that truly resonates with people. And saying that he matters to you comes with a ponderous asterisk: A love of R. Kelly’s music comes with it a tacit admission that one is fine listening to music made by a guy who’s probably a pedophile. Some people can separate the art from the artist, others can’t. That’s just the way it is.
Because his previous two records were sort of dentist-office-waiting-room-music, Black Panties will be hailed by critics as a "return to form" for Kellz (as much as a record that contains the word "pussy" 72 times can be hailed as such). And, to be fair, it’s a consistently incredible album. Kelly has internalized the pop sounds of today and created a product that’s vastly more original, bizarre, and fun than anything else out there. Black Panties is a product of practiced perfection, rendered so it seems effortless in the best possible way.—in an overly long skit involving two R. Kelly’s having a phone conversation, he tells himself, “You can write a song about any damn thing.” And then he proves himself right by following it up with “Marry the Pussy,” a “sex proposal” where he coos in that honeyed tenor, handed down from Hip-Hop Jesus himself, “Pussy would you marry me?” You can practically hear the giggling between each utterance of “pussy.”
The thing about R. Kelly is that he is not normal. His is a hermetic, sexual galaxy; his delivery completely straight-faced while he sings legitimately batshit insane songs. He’s serious about being funny, and it’s funny how serious he seems. It’s important to remember that Kelly’s silliness has increased along with his cultural ubiquity. There’s nary a trace of the jokey sex jams of his latter-day output on TP-2.com or R. or Twelve Play, meanwhile, songs such as “Sex in the Kitchen” or his neverending Trapped in the Closet saga are expressly meant to be funny. It’s like what would happen if Bill Callahan suddenly started making songs about masturbating in the woods. Modern R. Kelly is both the logical continuation of his career arc of making more and more sexually explicit songs, as well as a total subversion of his early work. It’s what makes him an artist in the purest sense of the term, a surgically precise craftsman using his work to publically parse what’s going on in his head. He’s got a screw or two loose, and those screws have caused him to both create singular, incredibly music and do some truly heinous shit. While the platitude “the avant-garde need not be moral” is often bandied about as a catchall explanation for why it’s OK to listen to music that might make some uncomfortable, everybody has their lines—this is art we’re talking about, and it’s as real as you allow it to be.
Drew Millard is the Features Editor of Noisey. He’s on Twitter - @drewmillard