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When a pop megastar enters the room, there can be a strange satisfaction in seeing a king-size entourage in tow. On a crisp December afternoon at a studio in SoHo, the elevator doors part and R. Kelly swoops onto the premises, adorned in Versace sunglasses and an enormous fur-trimmed coat. Hes flanked by so many managers, bodyguards, and assorted personnel its nearly impossible to get an adequate glimpse of him. In the age of social media, when being accessible is increasingly in vogue, the R&B titan represents an almost antiquated brand of celebrity excess, one that hearkens back to the early-90s MTV heyday in which he first made his name. During negotiations for this story, publicist Theola Borden lamented that to keep R. Kelly in town costs an average of $22,000 a night. His hospitality rider includes a dozen long-stemmed red roses, 24 black towels, broiled lobster, Grey Goose vodka, Hennessy cognac, and Moet & Chandon champagne. While on set, I make the mistake of looking at him when he bursts into a bit of song in his dressing room, and a visibly haggard staffer frantically ushers me out of sight. Suffice it to say, when it comes to being the King of R&B, Robert Sylvester Kelly is not in the business of being subtle.
Musically and creatively I feel like Im a survivor, the superstar tells me a few weeks later, over the phone, from the comfort of his tour bus. Hes en route from Detroit, where he played on New Years Eve, to his home in Atlanta, where he primarily resides. In conversation hes affable, generous with his time, and surprisingly easygoing. I do what I have to do to excite the crowd. I do whatever it takes to raise eyebrows and to win. This is a tactic employed since the beginning of his career, when he debuted with his singing group Public Announcement, in 1992. His A&R executive, Wayne Williams, recalls seeing them perform at a backyard barbecue in 1990 and knowing that Kelly was born for the stage.
The way I saw girls looking at him and reacting to what he was doing reminded me of seeing videos of Elvis, Williams recalls. The reaction was that extreme. I knew he needed to sign with me. Williams has been working with Kelly ever since. Its worth noting the unspoken quality about Kelly that breeds a tremendous amount of loyalty among his team, his collaborators, and his fans. His performances have been described as churchlike by critics, emphasizing a near religious fanaticism among his audiences. When court cases involving statutory rape and sexual assault surfaced during the 90s and early aughts, and threatened to castrate his career, legions of his disciples (a large percentage of them women) stuck by him. This past November, Kelly released his twelfth album, Black Panties, twenty years after the debut of his first solo record, 12 Play. The full-circle nature of the album, both stylistically and in terms of its success, has at least partially helped exhume the scandals that continue to plague him today. Some say its a penance hell never fully pay. Others argue its a closed case best left in the past. Whatever your stance, its hard to imagine anyone more suited, for better or worse, to inhabit the spotlight.
You described yourself as a survivor. When critics try to bring up certain things from your past, how do you weather that?
R. KELLY The more a soldier wins, the more the other soldiers want to take him out. You have to know how to metaphorically and spiritually use your gift to be your shield. So I shield myself with my gift. I stay behind it and I continue to make music. And when the music is sharpened, I shoot it out there. Im not a master, but I learned a lot from my teacher Lena McLin. She was basically my Ms. Miyagi and I was her Daniel-san. I would listen to everything she would tell me and Im still doing that today.
Was it a strategic decision after 20 years to return to the original R. Kelly sound?
RK It was really for my fans. Everyone has been asking me when Im going to do another baby-making album, because thats what started me out. Ive been all around the world musically, in every genre. I can write I Believe I Can Fly, and I can write Bump N Grind. Now is the time to bring it back around.
Is it true youre planning a sequel to the record?
RK Absolutely. Its called White Panties. And you can expect a whole other level.
Are you compromising your experimental side by creating something so specifically for your fans?
RK No. I always follow what my spirit tells me to do. When I get into the studio I write from my heart. I try to write life and not songs. People live life and when you write life youre going to mess around and touch somebodys heart, and theyll relate to you and what youre singing about.
Why did you decide to enlist artists like 2 Chainz and Future?
RK When Im in the studio, I let my music and my lyrics do a kind of casting call. My music feels like a movie to me. I can hear in my head who should be on the song, and then I make a call. With 2 Chainz and Future, these guys respect my music and I respect what they do, so its just like a hand going into a glove.