It has saddened me to watch the moralists telling us not to play the songs of R. Kelly because R. Kelly may have “bad morals.” What has morality to do with great art ? I can cite countless examples of very dicey artists who have made great art. Indeed, it may well be that living on the edge, or over the edge, evokes great art of those who live as they do, greater art than is weaned by the good life.
R. Kelly is said to be a pimp of underage girls. And if he is ? The painter Correggio was a pimp and a fraudster. Al Green and Sam Cooke abused women (both paid for it, Green by being scalded, Cooke murdered). Chuck Berry was a voyeur for most of his life. Hound Dog Taylor was said to have pimped his wife, Koko Taylor, as a regular thing. Leadbelly went to prison for murder. Gloria Trevi spent many years in prison for major crimes; Bernard Cantat of the French rock band Noir desir was accused of murdering his girlfriend. The 15th Century Parisian poet Francois Villon was a thief.; so was novelist Jean Genet. Louis Ferdinand Celine collaborated with the Nazis, as did singer Lucienne Boyer. Ezra Pound and Knut Hamsun were anti-Semites. And on and on…
Do we treasure their art nonetheless ? You bet we do. At least those of us do who do not judge art by the behavior of the artist.
Now for R. Kelly. i have seen him in concert, twice. No one in the world of post-soul Black pop captures its troubled conscience as powerfully as he does: the irresistible sex appeal, the compulsion to be sexual, the second thoughts about one’s compulsion — immortally sung in “Second Kelly,” his greatest song — and the need to be physically dominant by any means available from forceful to sly, from muscular to weak. These are, of course, the confessed parameters of soul music, too, a genre never free of pain, or of joy, a genre of paradox: Maze’s great “Joy and Pain” sums it up even as it plumbs the profundity of R. Kelly’s work.
It is easy to sing of joy and pain if one’s life is free of the one and blessed by the other. Anodyne singers do that job well, assuming one cares to hear its surface sounds. It is a thing otherwise entirely to hear joy and pain sung by those who reach for the one while nailed to the other. Listen to an Al Green song, a Sam Cooke, a Curtis Mayfield after his tragic accident, an Isaac Hayes, an Etta James, a Tina turner. Does R. Kelly rank with these greats ? You bet he does. Listen to his greatest albums: R, 1998; TP-2.com, 2000; TP.3 Reloaded, 2005; Love Letter, 2010l; and Black Panties, 2013 : in them you’ll find seduction, flim flam, needs, candor, physical healing — all of it redolent of Marvin Gaye at his most petulant and Ronnie Isley at his most comforting, yet sung in that reedy, slip-through-the-cracks tenor that no one voices with anything like the same insecure determination. This is what soul music gives us. Confession seeking acquiescence dangerously accorded, commitment to the devil side of holiness.
R. Kelly will likely now be banished from the marketplace of right-thinking people. All the more reason to embrace his art, the sound of a soul being damned but never to be squashed.
—- Deedee Freedberg / Feelin’ the Music