What do we make of R. Kelly?

Has the R&B star's behavior clouded the way we understand his music?

By Salon Staff

Published June 5, 2007 7:15PM (EDT)

R. Kelly has been successfully delivering catchy and lushly produced R&B for 15 years. He has also been indicted on charges of child pornography, and he recently compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr. How much does his reprehensible behavior cloud our perception of his music?

If the critical reception given to his new album, "Double Up" (streamed here), is any indication, the answer is "a lot." Not much dirtier, weirder or worse to my ears than his previous albums, "Double Up" has gotten a glut of reviews criticizing it as tasteless and gross. The Guardian (2/5 stars) argues that "the reaction 'Double Up' provokes makes you think of the scene from 'The Producers' when the opening night performance of 'Springtime for Hitler' ends and the camera pans on to the audience: open-mouthed, frozen, aghast." Slant magazine (1/5 stars) singles out the Virginia Tech-inspired "Rise Up" for particular abuse, writing, "'Double Up's' most egregious lyrical outrage is that, after 15 horny songs that were no doubt written with 14-year-old girls in mind, Kelly turns his attention to the grieving co-eds of Virginia Tech." Even more damning, Yahoo's Launch music site concludes that on "Double Up," "R. Kelly's rampant delusions have seen off the last hints of the talent which once made him great."

It appears that Kelly has firmly entered Leni Riefenstahl territory: For some, if not most, critics, it's becoming impossible to separate the person from the art.

Can we? Should we? It's hard to say. But critic Ann Powers dissected the Kelly conundrum brilliantly in an essay in Monday's Los Angeles Times. Powers refuses to write Kelly off as a freakish miscreant, and instead places him in a historical line that connects vaudeville performers, Sun Ra, the blues, Richard Pryor and Michael Jackson. "It's hard to imagine anyone going farther, outside the exiled realm of pornography itself," writes Powers of Kelly and "Double Up." "It's difficult, that is, unless one hears Kelly's music as a particularly warped contribution to a musical conversation about sexuality and power in a racist society that certain African American artists have been engaged in for at least 150 years."

She may not like Kelly as a person, but unlike other critics, Powers tries to understand him, providing a context in which we might grasp both his music and how it's perceived by others. "He's an unsettled, unintegrated soul," writes Powers, "bizarrely attuned to the most difficult contradictions contained within African American culture. That's why, despite his violent objectification of women, overuse of baller clichés and frequently clunky depictions of the very sex act he so reveres, he still fascinates so many. He's an id born of history that no superego can tame."

-- David Marchese

Salon Staff

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