Songs in the key of R: Lewd lyrics, even now

August 10, 2008

BY Jim DeRogatis Pop Music Critic

Sitting at the defense table in Judge Vincent Gaughan's courtroom on June 13, an emotional R. Kelly greeted the news of his acquittal on charges of making child pornography with the simple statement, "Thank you, Jesus."

The Chicago R&B superstar hasn't uttered a word in public since.

This is not a surprise: A tight-lipped interviewee throughout a two-decade career, in which he's sold more than 36 million albums, Kelly let his public pronouncements became even fewer and farther between after revelations of the now infamous sex tape that led to his indictment in 2002.

But the prolific singer and producer has never hesitated to speak to the world in the way he knows best -- through his music -- and his new songs may be the only comments he ever gives about his trial and tribulations.

In late July, 13 new Kelly tracks were floated on the Web and are now widely available as free downloads. It's unclear whether the artist or his longtime label Jive Records played a role in this Internet distribution -- early leaks of hip-hop and R&B albums have proven to be a valuable tool for generating publicity about a CD release -- or if all of the 13 tracks will appear on the forthcoming album, "12 Play: 4th Quarter."

However, Jive did confirm to MTV News that at least two of the songs -- "Hair Braider," already released as a single, and "Skin," for which Kelly has filmed a video -- will be on the star's 10th proper solo disc, and that as a result of the leak, the in-store schedule has been accelerated, though the actual release date still hasn't been announced.

Called to testify six years after the alleged Kelly sex tape appeared in my mailbox and the Sun-Times turned it over to police, I declined while citing my protections under the First and Fifth Amendments, and the court honored the latter. Since the paper began reporting on what it has called a pattern of the singer abusing his wealth and fame to have sex with underage girls, I have not critiqued his music using the familiar four-star scale, though I have reported on the content.

What, then, does Kelly have to say in his new songs?

The most striking track by far is the last of the 13 floating on the 'Net, "Relief," a mellow, soulful stepping song that seems to offer a direct comment on his acquittal:

"The storm is over and I'm so glad the sun is shining / We fast and prayed, and it feels good to know that He answers / Confusion everywhere, with not a clue to know how to make it better / A toast to the man upstairs 'cause he put the pieces back together," the song begins. "Now let's step to a new tune 'cause everything's OK / You're all right and I'm all right, well, let's celebrate."

The chorus: "What a relief to know that we are [won or one] / What a relief to know that the war is over / What a relief to know that there's an angel in the sky / What a relief to know that love is still alive."

The spiritual message of "Relief" is an exception, however. On most of the rest of the disc, as in much of Kelly's considerable catalog, the star adopts the persona of the self-proclaimed "Sexual Super Freak" and "Pied Piper of R&B" to sing of libidinous conquests and desires, as might be expected of an album titled as the sequel to the 5-million-selling "12 Play." The punning title of that disc, Kelly said, came from the fact that while other lovers might give you foreplay, he could give you three times better.

Two of the new songs deal with conception. In between positioning his lover for optimal pleasure and the best chance at getting pregnant in "Wanna Make a Baby," the narrator of the song boasts: "I'm just trying to knock you up / So you can have your mini-me."

In "Might Be Mine," Kelly isn't nearly so eager to become a father. After telling us several times that "this is a true story," this "Trapped in the Closet"-like "hip-hopera" relates the tale of how the narrator got a call from an attorney representing a stripper he met at a club in Chicago and who is now claiming to be pregnant with his child.

"There's a very good chance that it might be mine / Oh, I know I hit it, yeah," Kelly sings. "There's a very good chance that it might be mine / Oh, I should have used protection, yeah / There's a very good chance that it might be mine / I'll have to give my money, yeah / There's a very good chance that it might be mine / Man, I don't even like this girl!"

In April 2002, Kelly was sued by Patrice Jones, a Chicago woman who claimed he impregnated her when she was underage, and that one of his associates took her to have an abortion. The case eventually was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Kelly tells another lewd tale in "Screamer," which is about slipping away from a house party to have sex with his lover. They are discovered by the other partygoers because the girl can't restrain her ecstatic expressions: "Shorty is a screamer," Kelly sings.

Loud sex also figures in "Son of a B----," which finds Kelly pillow-talking over spare piano accompaniment and confessing, "You know the sex is good when you tell your best friend, 'He was screaming son of a b-----!'"

Also noteworthy is "Playas Get Lonely," an expression of the difficulties of finding true love amid the relentless pace of the superstar life: "From my iPhone to my Sidekick / Jet planes, schedule hectic / My love life, I neglect it / In the fast lane, my life's a picture flick / Let my drink decide who is the next chick / I ain't gonna lie, on the plane it don't matter to me."

A distant second to his favorite lyrical topic of sex are the joys and luxuries of wealth: "Two-Seater" essentially is a catalog of all the material pleasures that make it good to be R. Kelly. But the song also contains the interesting lines, "Contract's up / Kels is about to make a killin'."

Kelly's forthcoming album is the last required under his contract with Jive, and he reportedly has been meeting with other labels, including Interscope Records, in search of a new and more lucrative deal. It's likely that any label will wait to see how "12 Play: 4th Quarter" fares in the marketplace before signing Kelly, however.

Despite his acquittal, music industry analysts are divided about whether the star's new sounds can match or surpass the chart peaks and sales triumphs of the past. "Hair Braider" stalled at No. 56 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs in the midst of the trial, and Kelly's last album, "Double Up" (2007), has yet to be certified platinum, with sales of 946,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

"If he puts out a great record, all of the controversy will be forgotten, because the music business and the fans have very short memories," said one radio programmer who asked that he not be identified because "frankly, we haven't made up our mind yet about whether we're going to play him or not. We didn't like 'Hair Braider.' We're reserving judgment on the new songs until they're [officially released]. And it's going to be a hard call once they are."

Meanwhile, a group of 19 male professors, writers and activists in the African-American community who call themselves "Black Men Against the Exploitation of Black Women" is urging a boycott of all of Kelly's music in an online petition expressing outrage at the not-guilty verdict.

Written by William Jelani Cobb, an associate professor of history at Spelman College in Atlanta, and Kevin Powell, a roommate from the first season of MTV's "The Real World" turned prolific author and congressional candidate, the group's statement urges people to "make a personal pledge to never support R. Kelly again in any form or fashion unless he publicly apologizes for his behavior and gets help for his long-standing sexual conduct in his private life and in his music."

Since it was posted online on June 17, the petition has garnered 2,043 signatures.