A Bitter Taste

February 18, 2003



When R. Kelly released his last album in 2000, I reviewed “TP2.com” by noting the often jarring dichotomy in the work of the platinum-selling Chicago superstar, comparing the uneasy balance of the sacred and the profane, the sweet and nasty, the smooth lover and the streetwise R&B thug to a similarly schizophrenic split in the music of Marvin Gaye.

“His lyrical shifts from the church to the street corner are so jarring that they can give you whiplash,” I noted.

That review prompted an anonymous fax contending that while Gaye certainly had his personal problems (including a turbulent divorce, drug addiction, depression, and the fact that he was shot and killed by his father), they were nothing compared to R. Kelly’s. The fax went on to say that Kelly, now 36, had been under investigation by Chicago Police for quite some time for engaging in illegal sexual activities with minors, prompting a series of investigative stories by The Chicago Sun-Times.

Thanks to those reports, the Sun-Times received another anonymous tip in early 2002 in the form of a nearly 30-minute video tape that appears to show Kelly having sex with a then-14- or 15-year-old girl. The revelation of that tape eventually resulted in Kelly’s indictment in Illinois on 21 counts of child pornography. Last month, he was indicted on another 12 counts of child porn in Florida for digital images that apparently show him engaged in further sexual activities with the same Chicago area girl.

Kelly’s new album, the oft-delayed and substantially reworked “Chocolate Factory,” arrives in record stores today. While Gaye’s darkest and most complex music (“What’s Going On” or the “divorce album,” “Here, My Dear”) certainly reflected the turmoil in his life, it transcended his personal circumstances to rise to the level of great art. But the same cannot be said of “Chocolate Factory.”

It’s impossible to hear Kelly’s fifth solo album without thinking of it in context of the disturbing charges against him, filled as it is with sophomoric sexual metaphors (from the now infamous opening line of the first single “Let me stick my key in your ignition, babe” to song titles such as “You Made Me Love You” and “Dream Girl”) and endless but hollow protestations of his innocence (“God will judge me the same as he judges you” he tells “playa haters” and “fake friends” in “Been Around the World”).

Lyrically, the album brings to mind the recent work of Kelly’s friend, the self-professed King of Pop Michael Jackson, who claims to be desperate to escape what he calls a false and “media-created” image of him as a pedophile even as he revels in singing about “all the lost children” of the world.

If Kelly is not plagued by sexual obsessions of the most damaging, unhealthy, and illegal sort, why is sex on his mind in the crudest and most sophomoric terms throughout the album?

“Anything you want, you just come to daddy,” the singer croons in the opening moments of the disc—a lyric that is positively revolting to anyone who has seen the controversial and often-bootlegged videotape, in which the man prosecutors say is Kelly urges the allegedly underage girl to call him “daddy” as she straddles him during sex.

Musically, Kelly seems tired and devoid of fresh inspiration. It’s likely that this would have been true even if he hadn’t been crafting these sounds while simultaneously grappling with the pressures of possibly loosing his fortune and his career. (He faces 15 years behind bars on the Illinois charges alone.)

The most exciting music in R&B in recent years has come from so-called “neosoul artists” such as D’Angelo and Maxwell, who have returned to grittier, sweatier sounds crafted live in the studio with big, kicking bands. In contrast, the slick digital sheen of Kelly’s lush and often absurdly over-produced music is like the difference between watching a movie in surround sound at a first-rate theater and seeing it on TV.

A guest cameo by Ronald Isley adds little; the mere presence of B-list rappers Fat Joe and Ja Rule sure aren’t enough to win credibility in the hip-hop world (especially after the dismal failure of last fall’s joint album with Jay-Z, “The Best of Both Worlds); Kelly proves himself ill-suited with the old-school romance of stepping music on a lame track called “Step in the Name of Love,” and he hits the artistic nadir of his career with the bonus disc’s bizarre mock-opera cannibalizing parts of “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Heaven I Need a Hug.”

Given the astounding mediocrity of the music, how then do we explain what seems to be a relatively high level of anticipation for “Chocolate Factory”?

Released in advance of the album, “Ignition” is a hit single (it’s the No. 1 most played song on urban radio today, according to Kelly’s label, Jive Records) and the most requested video on BET and MTV.

“R&B radio clearly has decided to rally around him,” said Sean Ross, editor in chief of the trade publication Airplay Monitor. “In the ’50s and ’60s, you heard about careers being destroyed [by scandal]. These days, it doesn’t automatically happen. Plus, many of Kelly’s fans don’t believe the allegations and see them as another attempt to bring a successful black man down.”

Thanks in part to the superficial reporting of many media outlets (Rolling Stone and other music magazines have covered the charges against Kelly by treating them as a joke instead of examining them, as the Sun-Times has done, as part of an ongoing pattern of behavior that has left many young African-American women emotionally scarred and devastated), some fans may not really understand the seriousness of what Kelly has been accused of.

Until you see the revolting images on the video or place them in the context of other charges against Kelly that have been made in numerous lawsuits filed by other underage girls, it is easy to dismiss the tape as fun and frolics along the lines of the Pam Anderson-Tommy Lee sex video, when in fact it is something much, much uglier.

Even more disturbing is the notion that people do understand the severity of the crimes that Kelly is accused of committing, and they are being driven to explore his new music because of some sort of voyeuristic impulse.

A handful of critics (this one included) found Bruce Springsteen’s relentless hyping of “The Rising” distasteful for riding on the back of the tragedy of 9/11. But the notion of “Chocolate Factory” succeeding because of Kelly’s misdeeds (whether this is simply the result of public curiosity or a more cynical plan by the artist, Jive Records, and radio and television to “cash in” on the star’s notoriety) is far worse and akin to those who bought or marketed the jailhouse clown paintings of John Wayne Gacy.

A certain a morbid fascination and sociological or psychological interest in these creations is, perhaps, understandable. But that certainly doesn’t make them great art, and it doesn’t mean that they are worthy of owning or celebrating.

Star rating for “Chocolate Factory”: One star.

Contributing: Associated Press


Kelly's Communique to Fans

In addition to frequently but obtusely referencing his indictment and pending trial in the lyrics to several songs on “Chocolate Factory,” R. Kelly addresses the charges against him in an obsequious thank-you note to fans included in the liner notes. Here is the text of that message (punctuation and grammar appear as is on the album).

“Dear Fans of mine,

“Thank you for all the love and support that you have shown me not only during these trying times, but also throughout my career. I want you to know that I am forever grateful for you all.

“You guys are the reason I am who I am today and the reason why I will continue to write songs into tomorrow. God Bless you all for inspiring me the way that you have done.

“Lately it has been hard for me to find someone I trust, someone to talk to, someone who is loyal, understanding, and most of all, a true friend. But, during the course of my success, God has led me to see that you guys have been all of those things and more. And that’s love!

“I hope you guys enjoy this album because I truly made it for you.

“Love, R, Kelly

“PS: When you see me, hug a thug!”