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The Confounding Genius of R.Kelly

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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  1. creepy steve says:

    i saw ohpra interviewing that susan boyle and the gay american idols guy in the same segment the day before yesterday, imagine the three way backstage, oh baby oh baby AHHH AH AH pass the kfc bucket i’m nearly done, uh UH UHHH…that’s rock and roll

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  2. Neutron says:

    Say it like it is. Preach on!

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  3. brandon edmonds says:

    I see your astonishing indifference and fart in your general direction.

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  4. Andy says:

    This is a travesty… one of the best articles Mahala has published this year at least. If not ever.

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  5. Luca says:

    I’ve been saying this for a long time, Ignition remix is one of the great tracks while “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” is a epic line that one can use at any given point on the weekend should acting out of the ordinary. Preach. Finally.

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  6. Jersey Pot says:

    Brandon Edmonds – you’re a good writer, an intelligent guy. How much are you getting paid for this shit? It better be worth it seeing as no one’s reading it. All your words are wasted on this site. They belong somewhere for someone who cares.

    Quit Mahala and get a better job, dude. You deserve it. You’re worth more than this.

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  7. brandon edmonds says:

    From your lips to the Gods, Jersey. Gracias.

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  8. Andy says:

    Allow me to just jump in here and say fuck you Jersey Pot… You’re just a troll, so it’s not worth engaging in a serious debate with you. You say outrageous shit just to stoke ire and if people rise to the bait you get to have an anonymous little laugh in your empty bedroom. So let me just say a few things and be gone. This story didn’t get a lot of play on Mahala but it will have a long tail… as everything of quality on the internet invariably does. Edmonds is one of our star writers, and he was unpublished before Mahala came along. Now go have a nice long wank and maybe you’ll feel better.

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  9. Jersey Pot says:

    Andy, you must be either the editor or the owner of the site

    Why so indignant? Let me just say this. You say ‘… he was unpublished before Mahala came along’, what like you did him some huge favour? He works for you. He generates content for you and you, presumably, pay him (although I understand lots of people on this site work for mahala in two senses of the phrase). So why are you attacking me?

    All I’m saying is that this site is not befitting someone of Edmonds standards. He’s a far better writer than deserves getting ‘three kifs’ and barely no reads. Writing of his kind, excellent writing, doesn’t deserved to be consigned in this rubbish heap, to languish away here, unread and unappreciated. So, don’t take it all personally!

    And I love the fact that because I’m criticising your project justly (where are the readers? where are the kifs? where are the comments? hell, where the ads, because Edmonds is the guy that’s helping you get that one Nike ad you have on the site) you want to call me a wanker and a troll.

    Yeah, sure, I get a kick out of stirring up the pot anonymously (I mean, who the hell doesn’t, right? Come on, admit you fuckers, the internet thrives on bringing out all the latent hate), but that doesn’t mean my criticism is any less valid.

    Brandon, you are a ‘star writer’, as Andy calls you. But is this what you’re worth? Squandering your words on a hardly-read website? I don’t see you in the papers or other magazines or other sites? Where else are you writing, man? Break free, motherfucker. Writers like you are hard to come by. Alls I’m saying is don’t waste your time. If you like writing for Mahala, if you think it’s the best platform for you, then enjoy. But I think you could do so much better.

    Maybe Andy’s paying you a king’s ransom? Money fucking talks, I get it.

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  10. Andy says:

    Look we may not be the biggest magazine site in South Africa but we’re not insubstantial. And we all work hard for very little reward to make this thing happen. Check under the Advertise link above to see how big our audience is. You’ve got it in your head that Edmonds is unappreciated at Mahala, which is not the case. Neither by those who work at the magazine, or those who read it. This story didn’t get as much love as it deserved to. Maybe it was Friday and everyone was watching football. Maybe it was that the illustration is too “fun” for the seriousness of the piece. Maybe R.Kelly just makes the majority of our audience switch off. Who knows. But to go and bash the whole of Mahala and exhort our writer to ditch us is wrong and quite spiteful. Quite a lot like your other posts, in fact. You really should draw towards the light. Especially considering that we’re the only magazine in South Africa that currently publishes stuff like this. And you yourself are a serial visitor and commentator.
    Your response and praise of Edmonds, is perhaps well meaning, but it smacks of pessimism, negativity and pettiness. You should be our number one fan, telling everyone you know that there’s this kif independent magazine that publishes this amazing, original stuff by a guy called Brandon Edmonds. Write that name down, he’s going to be huge…

    Instead you’re just being a douche.

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  11. Roger Young says:

    @Jersey Pot

    Maybe some suggestions would be in order. Name the places Edmonds should be writing for. In South Africa, right now. Places that would give him free reign to write about whatever takes his fancy.

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  12. koppie koppie says:

    This is the most arbitrary intro ever.

    To wit, I have:

    Kissed someone soul stirring more than once.
    Never protested.
    Watched Bottle Rocket only once.
    Never flossed. (probably regret that when I’m older)
    Eaten lasagna plenty.
    Disappointed my parents all over the place.
    Never recycled.
    Masturbated plenty.
    Only hugged an old friend once and it was awkward.
    Never drunk dialed an ex.
    And listened to this shitty R Kelly track just once.

    what’s your point edmonds?

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  13. brandon edmonds says:

    Gee we’re different you and I. Go fucking figure, douche nuts.

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  14. justme says:

    Fuck shit, fuck fuck shit shit, arsehole, Cunt? Bastard, anus, shit shit shit, fuck fuck, shit, pussy, dick. Arsehole Cunt!

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  15. justme says:

    Now that’s poetry!

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  16. brandon edmonds says:

    You’re losing it. Go read Vice.

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  17. Moose says:

    Jesus not Jersey Pot again!
    For someone who bitches about Mahala so much, he sure does spend a lot of time here.
    No point telling him to fuck off. He’s here for the hate.

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  18. Oh, comment board says:

    Semiotics + R.Kelly + Mahala= media student leisure time smiles

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  19. Dennis says:

    Well, I think this was another cool article. Brendon… I dig the mag. Been visiting allot. Been spamming friends and family with links… This whole find a better place, wasting your talent thing is a load. You’re writing, you’re doing something you enjoy. You’re good at it. Fuck the limited kiffs. Because the few people reading your work now, really appreciate it. We don’t tick the “I like” knoppie because we feel sorry for you. If your work sucked, we’d tell you. It’s being praised because it deserves to be praised. I don’t usually spend this much time acknowledging what I admire in others… just had to say my say. Mahala rocks, you rock. We want more.

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  20. Dennis says:

    Oh, and andy.

    ( . ) ( . )

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  21. brandon edmonds says:

    Thanks for the mammaries, Dennis!

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  22. Tease says:

    Well written. Never heard of Mahala until today – a friend posted the link for this article on her Facebook page. Im definitely gonna be a regular reader

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  23. scout says:

    Cudo’s Edmonds! You really do know how to make a brother blush.

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  24. bahumbugga says:

    Ma wurd, this slinky Edmonds chappie sure stirs it up. But I must dissent. R. Kelly is a disposable toe-rag, & his Black Panther turn at the WC was beyond risible. The twat should at least have pissed on Shakira or summat. As it was, one cried out for the return of a credible Cleaver – Khoisan X sprang to mind. Come back, Benny!

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  25. cond says:

    Brandon, thank you for writing this. I really enjoyed it!

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