Whatever view one takes of R. Kelly -- that he is obscene, insane, outlandish, played out, musical kingpin or joker -- one thing is irrefutable: America deserves him.
Five years after being indicted on charges of child pornography, dozens of hits into a career spent raunching up R&B;, Kelly's enjoying yet another climb up the charts with his eighth solo album, Double Up. Defenders of morality and good taste must wonder how the honey-voiced potty mouth remains so successful, or at least hope that his flamboyant tastelessness represents the endpoint of sexually explicit pop.
On Double Up, Kelly comes up with doozies such as "Sex Planet," an intergalactic lovemaking tour; "The Zoo," in which his "heated animal" jungle visions give way to monkey grunts; and "Sweet Tooth," a sugar-soaked ode to orality.
The album's 15 other tracks offer much groping, shaking and licking, with only a few inspirational ballads puncturing the flow. Even the song about having a baby earns an R rating. It's hard to imagine anyone going further, outside the exiled realm of pornography itself.
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 black artists have been engaged in for at least 150 years.
Such a reassessment doesn't diminish the shamefulness of Kelly's alleged personal behavior. Nor does it earn him forgiveness for the musical laziness that mars the predictable club bangers on Double Up -- likely hits that show guest stars Nelly, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg working harder than their host. (One exception is the excellent "I'm a Flirt," featuring T.I. and T-Pain; Kelly's fully present in this understatement of the hip-hop year.)
But it does provide some clues to the Kelly mystique and suggests that his work is only an outpost on a path that just keeps extending.
Take those three much-talked-about songs based on extended metaphors. "The Zoo" is the most shocking; what black man in his right mind would compare himself to a wild animal? The act opens a Pandora's box of racist references.
Yet black performers themselves have been tackling these images since at least the early 20th-century. In her book about early black American performance, Bodies in Dissent, Daphne A. Brooks describes the colorful scene as "bodies out of swamps, swamps into bodies" and discusses the shock it generated among audiences. The critical huffing and puffing surrounding the musical foreshadows the fuss that surrounds Kelly today.
In "The Champ," the strangely powerful if wholly unconvincing introduction that begins Double Up, Kelly briefly invokes another king of pop: his former collaborator, Michael Jackson. The final evidence that Kelly will survive is provided by the fact of Jackson's own exile after being accused of child molestation.
Jackson, a far-greater musical innovator and cultural legend than Kelly, has likely been permanently felled. Neither man's alleged actions are excusable, but is it a coincidence that Jackson is effeminate, has modified his looks to appear more white and was accused of molesting boys, while Kelly is virile, is proudly "chocolate" and stands accused of molesting girls? Stereotypes die hard, and we've all absorbed them. R. Kelly may not consciously grasp that, but he's reaping the benefits, whether he calls himself a monkey or a king.
Ann Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.