R. Kelly explained

Tofu Hut's John Seroff provides a six-step primer on the pied piper of R&B.


Audiofile is going to start featuring occasional pieces by our favorite music bloggers and assorted savvy commentators, writing about their latest musical enthusiasms. Our first is from John Seroff, proprietor of the Tofu Hut blog, who presents:

The Six Things You Really Should Know About R. Kelly and His No. 1 Album, “TP.3 Reloaded.”

1. The “R” stands for “Robert.”
Robert Sylvester, to be precise. Kelly also answers to “The R,” “The Pied Piper” and “Kells.”

2. The “TP” in question is not Charmin.
The reference is to Kelly’s phenomenally successful 1993 album “Twelve Play,” so called because it’s presumably three times as good as foreplay and also, well, it’s 12 tracks long. “Twelve Play” was Kelly’s second album and the first to bring him international fame, courtesy of the smash hit “Bump and Grind.” “Twelve Play” (which, appropriately, went sextuple platinum) features one of the truly great track titles of all time in “I Like the Crotch on You.”

In 2000, Kelly released a sequel to “Twelve Play” titled “TP-2.com.” “2,” like “1,” is almost entirely made up of raunchy slow jams, “Feelin’ on Yo’ Booty,” “Strip for You” and “Greatest Sex,” to name a few. “TP.3″ was released on July 5 of this year and has more or less dominated the pop album charts since. Notably outrageously titled cuts on “TP.3″ include “Kickin’ It With Your Girlfriend,” “Hit It Til’ the Morning” and “Sex in the Kitchen” (featuring the memorable lyric “This is what I’m ready to do/ Girl, I’m ready to toss your salad/ While making love, girl; I’ll be feasting”).

3. It’s awfully good.
Among R. Kelly fans, at least, the general consensus seems to be that “TP.3″ is as accomplished and fully realized an album as the man has made. There are numerous experiments in genre; Kelly shows an affinity to dancehall and reggae with “Slow Wind” and “Reggae Bump, Bump,” while “Girls Go Crazy” and “Playas Only” (a duet with ex-G-unit rapper the Game) is pure hip-hop. There are a number of surprisingly touching love songs; “Touchin’,” with longtime collaborator Nivea, is a gentle, seductive ballad with a typical Kelly-ish twist: The performers are singing to each other ostensibly in flagrante delicto. There’s also at least one true summer jam: “Happy Summertime” with Snoop Dogg, which is all but certain to be booming from a Jeep near you soon.

4. If you enjoyed Al Green in the ’70s, Marvin Gaye in the ’80s or Prince in the ’90s, “TP.3″ is worth a look.
Like Al, Kelly’s ongoing struggle between the twin poles of his libido and his spirituality is the crux of his music; Kelly’s last album, the two-CD “Happy People/U Saved Me,” includes an entire disc of gospel music. The lyrical raunchiness and comedy of Marvin’s classic “Midnight Love” neatly dovetails into R’s later opuses, and “TP.3″ mirrors Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls”-era blend of double-entendre, obsessively catchy hooks and silky-smooth delivery. As a vocal performer, Kelly rivals Michael Jackson in his ’80s prime; R.’s voice is provocative in its range, intensity and unrivaled sincerity. More than halfway through the decade, a reasonable case could be made for Kells as the preeminent soul singer of the naughties; time will tell if he’ll take his place among the luminaries, but albums as strong as “TP.3″ only help.

5. Is he serious?
That’s the million-dollar question music critics split over: R. Kelly’s music is arch, sophisticated and beautifully produced but so thick with malapropism that many writers damn Kelly as a filthy-minded and unintentional savant rather than hailing him as a landmark artist. Personally, I find it impossible to dismiss Kells so easily; too much of his music resonates too deeply to write it off as accidentally or naively crafted. This “Intelligent Design” approach to understanding Kelly almost willfully neglects the depth of meaning, expression and comedy that is baldly apparent in much of his work. While it’s putting it lightly that Kelly has some issues with hubris (all of the “Twelve Plays” are defined by excess and self-aggrandizement), it seems terribly obvious that the man approaches his music with a mix of humor and gravitas that is methodical, measured and meaningful. Kelly is ridiculously prolific (producing something more than an album a year), iconoclastic, fantastically popular and fun to listen to; if this is him screwing around, god help us if he ever gets serious.

6. Right, right. But what’s all this about him coming out of the closet?
Ah yes, the “Trapped in the Closet” cycle. This hyper-meta soap opera comprises the last 16 and a half minutes of “TP.3″ and deserves some special attention. Divided into five roughly three-minute songs, “Trapped” has our hero narrating the sad story of his raisonneur, Sylvester (see above), a married man who has misspent his night out by going home with a barely remembered stranger. Sylvester promptly attempts to leave but is stalled by the sudden return of his one-night stand’s husband. Finding himself captive in a one-exit, fifth-floor bedroom, Sylvester is forced to hide in the closet, where he espies his ex-lover and her husband begin to get it on. Then Sylvester’s cellular phone goes off and all hell breaks loose. The next four songs involve a concealed weapon, a shocking confession (“Well, since we’re all coming out the closet/ I’m not about to be the only one who’s broken hearted”), an unbelievable love polyhedron, a suspicious policeman, a half-dozen red herrings and an unfortunate leg cramp. The result, especially when rendered in obsessively verisimilitudinous music videos, is alternately hysterical, gripping and absurd beyond words. I strongly recommend you experience it for yourself (go here and click on the video tab).

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