This is my first R. Kelly record and it is incredibly hard to know what to do with it knowing about the man. I have not watched Surviving R. Kelly yet, but I have listened to the Behind the Bastards episodes about him. I know he is a terrible person and he’s basically gotten away with it. And now I’m supposed to review his singing and songwriting chops.
Kelly writes catchy songs. There’s no denying that. His albums are long and yet I don’t get as exhausted as I should. That’s a testament to both his skills as a songwriter and as an arranger (more on that in a minute). I think there are so many things you can criticize about R. Kelly the person and the performer, but the melodies don’t appear to be one of them.
Now, his lyrics are pretty problematic, though that is way more true of his later music than this record. There are fewer “oh science, I know what he’s singing about” moments on this record than there are on (the hilariously named) TP-2.com, which I am listening to at the same time. (Both have November release dates.) The thing that is impressive to me, in terms of craft, is his deviation from R&B lyric-formula. He’s very comfortable singing words that don’t quite rhyme or don’t scan. And, if he was a different human being, I might be very impressed by this. It’s certainly unconventional. And he pulls it off.
Which brings us to his voice. I am not super blown away by his instrument – that’s not to say he’s not a good singer, only that I don’t think he is, from a technical perspective, one of the great singers of all time. (He is not Whitney, Mariah, etc.) But his skill is very much at using the studio with his voice, to do different things and to create a whole wall of R. Kelly in these songs. He’s certainly one of the more talented vocal arrangers in R&B history (that I’ve heard). And that, combined with his technical chops and unique approach to lyrics, makes him truly unique, as far as I know, in the history of the genre. He’s a talent.
And then there’s the fact that he plays many of the instruments himself. (I cannot confirm what percentage.) That’s another thing that makes him extremely impressive as a musician – he is a very good singer, he’s a great vocal arranger, he’s a pretty good songwriter, and he’s a multi-instrumentalist.
I don’t think he’s a good producer, but I feel like that’s true of virtually every R&B producer of the 1990s. If he wasn’t so in love with the cliches of ’90s R&B album production, I would struggle much more with this record and the person he is.
I used to not care at all about the people who made art, whether or not that art was great. I wanted to evaluate the art on its own merits. But, at the same time, I would insist that art exists in time, and so I would try to judge art by where it sat in history. The thing is, history involves people, including the artist. And the artist has choices just like all of us. I can no longer ignore the personal choices artists make when those choices harm people. If I’m aware of those actions, they have to factor into what I think of the art, just like the art’s context in time.
I know R. Kelly had a bad life before he got famous. I cannot imagine what it was like to grow up like he did. My life has been so fortunate in comparison. But then he got rich. Because of his abilities, for sure. And he now has resources he didn’t have as a child. But, instead, he uses his money – and the things he learned as a child – to actively harm people. And he has not faced any real consequences. And I can’t ignore that.
He is an incredibly impressive musical talent, making music I don’t particularly like. But he is a terrible person who has ruined the lives of multiple women. And, unfortunately, his musical talent just isn’t enough to make up for that.