Throughout history, many artists of great genius and/or popularity have also been imbued with deep wells of amorality. From Egon Schiele to William S. Burroughs to Sam & Dave (well, at least Dave), they've been child molesters, wife murderers, and all manner of pathological malcontents. Their audiences have had to decide how to navigate these moral trespasses—balancing the work's value against the artists' misdeeds and determining to what degree they are inseparable. In modern times, there's no case more reflective of these issues than Robert "R." Kelly, aka Your Boy Kells, aka the Pied Piper of R&B, aka Your Boyfriend, aka "The Martin Luther King Jr. of today," (as he claims in a brand-new interview in Hip Hop Soul).
Five years have passed since his 2002 arrest on child molestation and pornography charges, the sticky particulars of which are known to even the most casual receiver of pop culture. Not only has R. Kelly not seen a day of his trial, but, as a massively successful singer and producer (with a Grammy and some 50 million albums sold worldwide), he is, in fact, at the top of his game. He continues his reign on the brand-new album Double Up—more on that later.
Kelly's first record following his arrest, 2003's Chocolate Factory, yielded the still blazingly strange and pop-golden song "Ignition Remix," a decisive turning point in his legacy. His previous work was a highly popular but hardly revolutionary tract of post–Bobby Brown smooth salaciousness; that which has followed is rich with defiantly obtuse lyrical content, as unbounded and fearless an approach to pop songwriting as anyone since vintage-weird Prince. While Kelly has created music many consider laughable, if one believes that the artistic stakes and potential pitfalls of experimentation increase with an artist's audience, then Kelly's recent output may be some of the most truly avant-garde in history.
The most simultaneously progressive and mockable example of Kelly's risk taking is the proselike expository singing he began dealing with on the Isley Brothers' "Busted," and furthered with his own epic "Trapped in the Closet" project. Undoubtedly, there's much mind-blowing ridiculousness in "Trapped in the Closet," but its chapters are a genuinely brand-new type of song that wouldn't exist were it not for Kelly's imagination and unfaltering self-belief.
In this recent Kelly, one sees a confluence of moral unaccountability and deeply seeded, ego-spurred artistic drive. It's easy to imagine that his manic sense of manifest destiny stems from his extraordinarily delayed trial and the aura of invincibility it lends him; it's this very mania that has engendered his rise, like testicles summoned by a cremaster, straight up into his own insular body of work.
There is another, darker side to the post-arrest Kelly reflected in the recent evolution of his public image and its growingly sinister nature. The public interaction with the criminality of his R&B megastar predecessors was much more complex and damning: Where James Brown was repeatedly ruined and repentant, and Michael Jackson's alleged crimes proved the final straw in the public's willingness to try to understand him, Kelly has, since the outing of his accused pathologies, been sexing in the kitchen and brandishing his Beretta in relative freedom. Any negative conclusions fans or detractors may have come to at the beginning of his rush down the respectability ladder have either stagnated or, without judicial validation, faded into little more than a punch line. In an era where most major rappers aspire to be "Teflon Dons" who slide past criminal charges like skillful ballplayers, Kelly has truly proven himself a made man.
Meanwhile, in the years of waiting for his trial, Kelly has continued to attract further accusations of statutory rape (many suppressed or settled out of court) and domestic violence. Like the current administration of the United States, the more Kelly's darkness goes unadmonished, the more flagrant his penchant for artistic villainy becomes. Once a clean-cut New Jack in a turtleneck and leather pants, Kelly now apes the vibe of his recent collaborators and D-Boy swagger magnates T.I. and Young Jeezy with a hard-to-swallow thuggishness and lust for reckless debauchery injected into his newest verses.
Which brings us to Double Up, his new album and at once the most blunt portrait of Kelly's growing sociopathic state and the most dazzlingly strange pop record he's yet produced. After some nondescript demon facing on feverish opener "The Champ," Kelly rolls through a gonzo parade of booze, whips, and one-toke-over-the-line sex metaphors ("The Zoo" and "Sex Planet" trump any of his past work in their delirious reaching: "Girl I promise this will be painless/We'll take a trip to planet Uranus"). His dealings with the opposite sex veer from the reasonably skeezy (taking girls "with dizzy legs" home from the club) to the skin-crawlingly inappropriate (wanting to "hit it" then "babysit it"). He also finds time to further experiment with the singing-dialogue style of "Trapped in the Closet" on "Best Friend" and "Real Talk," and on the aforementioned "The Champ" he's in unusually intense and lucid form: "I'm a child of God so my destiny's ordained/'Bout to shoot up the world with this lyrical cocaine."
The record's most peaceful moment comes on "Leave Your Name," where Kelly speaks as his answering machine, recounting the previous night's blacked-out ruckus while gently saying he can't come to the phone because he's asleep. Even if his waking life is a morally unconscious grind of tireless hit making, at least on record Kells can provide himself rest for the wicked.