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Culture, Music

The Confounding Genius of R.Kelly

by Brandon Edmonds, illustration by Mike Scott / 02.07.2010

Things you can’t do just once. Kiss someone soul-stirring. Protest. Watch Wes Anderson’s sparkling debut, Bottle Rocket. Floss. Eat lasagna. Disappoint your folks. Recycle. Masturbate. Hug an old friend and drunk dial an ex. Or listen to R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix”. Impossible. Try it.

See. You have to hear that call and response again: gimme that… toot toot. Why deny yourself? Gimme that… beep beep. This is golden-winged pop music operating just shy of sublimity. It’s scary good. So simple it’s profound. The couplets in the chorus have the swift natural rightness, the gorgeous lyrical inevitability, of a Shakespearean sonnet, timeless but they feel especially right for the partying mindlessness of a young 21st Century.

“Sipping on Coke ‘n rum / I’m like so what, I’m drunk / It’s the freakin weekend baby / I’m about to have me some fun.” Feel the animus for the working week in there, that undertow of a working man’s real fatigue, the total commitment to pleasure.
“After the show it’s the afterparty”, but Kelly pushes it, utterly self-revealing as the best artists always are, “after the party it’s the hotel lobby”! You dog. The man is a phallus. An erect, blessed paragon of R&B masculinity.

Black male sexuality is always potentially explosive in popular culture. There’s an unmanageable quality to it – cultural stereotypes of ultra-virility, overripe physical endowment, the big buck slave figure of racist romantic fiction and early Hollywood, the black rapist specter so often deployed by politicians “tough on crime” in an election cycle, the bestial “mandingo” myth, porn sites endlessly replaying “white chicks on black dicks”.

Ubiquitous cultural analyst, Slavoj Zizek, reminds us that “desire is the desire of the Other”. In other words, we want what we perceive those unlike us are enjoying far more powerfully than our own enjoyment. It’s deep racial wonderment. Whites imagine black men having crazy sex. Going for hours. Devastating their conquests. There’s resentment there. Fear and loathing. Artists like Prince and James Brown have surfed that discomfort – flaunting potency for cultural and aesthetic identity, goading whiteness into re-thinking its own desire.

The threat of black male sexuality is behind the white usurper figure in popular music: the successful channeler of “black sounds” and “black moves” who “steals” from blackness to make it big by repackaging the danger. There’s a bit of that with Die Antwoord. Elvis did it according to Public Enemy. And it certainly applies to Eminem. In 2002, he was called the “rap Hitler” by Source magazine’s self-promoting publisher, Ray Scott, a wild jibe meant to convey the wrongness of a white guy being king of the hip hop castle. Scott told MTV: “Eminem gets to talk about his issues and pain. We have to entertain more than expose our true issues. The machine doesn’t want our pain to be out there.”

The anxiety and fascination around black male sexuality never stops. One of the few renewable cultural resources. It explains Will Smith. He’s deliciously mocha, charming, smooth and entirely motivated by seeming non-threatening. A family man with a strong work ethic. You wouldn’t begrudge him his success. It also explains Justin Bieber. He’s a tween pop sensation, with pre-adolescent signifiers, a falsetto, no trace of body hair, angelic eyes, creamily perfect skin and a bland whiteness hearkening back to the antiseptic teen idols of the 1950s. Yet Bieber drops into hip hop registers. Has LL Cool J rap for him. Even hails from a classically “broken” family – raised by a single mother. Ironically, Bieber takes on aspects of blackness and R&B masculinity, as does Justin Timberlake, because popular music simply is “black music” in the 21st Century. Rap and R&B are the templates of uncomplicated listening pleasure everywhere. It’s what radio stations and streaming sites have on default playlists. You have to master its forms to make it.

But Bieber is blackness defanged – scrubbed free of discomfort for mainstream audiences. The threat of black male potency defused in the body and face of an angelic white cherub. That Bieber commercially deploys “black signs” – the croon, the flow, the dance steps, the girl-focused party anthems – suggests that it’s R. Kelly’s world and every other wannabe has to live in it.

Interestingly, blackness is showing signs of Bieber-ing itself. There’s an unforeseen genre of emo rap emerging. Everyone from Kanye West, Kid Cudi and Lil Wayne have opened up and got emotional. The hard gangsta shell is cracking open to reveal a whole mess of feelings. Young Canadian rapper Drake is the biggest at this kind of emotionalism right now. As Slate magazine put it, “Drake is a smoothie with a twist: the good life gets him down.” There’s no mistaking the influence of R. Kelly here either. Kelly invented emo if emo is all about self-doubt, internal agony and an amorphous kind of world-sick pain.

Here’s the first 12 chapters of what has been described as the first “rap opera”.

It is R. Kelly’s opus. An ongoing saga, “a gonzo musical serial”, called, ulp, Trapped in the Closet. There are 22 chapters so far taking in fun stuff like midgets, infidelity, voyeurism, guns and priests. Kelly sing-talks the deceptively straightforward lyrics as if he’s narrating a fever dream. He even yodels. Yes, really, actually, yodels. Critics have taken the R&B soap opera as banging proof of Kelly’s complete insanity. There was an understandable turn against him after the whole underage rimming and peeing incident. Don’t ask. Black stars have a long history of burning at the stake of “sexual transgression”, from Fats Waller to Kobe Bryant. But Kelly is no Gary Glitter. He’s learned from his mistakes: “When people throw bricks at you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to catch them.”

Part criminal, part lover, mega star, and the sweetest soul singer since Luther Vandross sadly passed, R. Kelly is like an anamorphic hologram-statue of contemporary blackness: every time you look, he’s showing something different. He’s important.

Here’s Sign of Victory, Kelly’s surprisingly subdued and tasteful World Cup Anthem.

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