Here's a question you'd hope those who appreciate music for its camp or ironic qualities occasionally ask themselves: At what point does appreciating an artist more for his eccentricities than for his craft become an insult? R. Kelly's obviously got craft to spare, but R. Kelly's also got eccentricities squirting out of every orifice. And ever since "Ignition (Remix)" in 2003 — and especially since "Trapped in the Closet" in 2005 — Kelly has attracted a new audience of rubberneckers who couldn't care less about the lung-busting slow jams and ballads that were his bread and butter in the '90s.
Many of us who, misguided or not, enjoy Kelly's music as music — not as camp or kitsch or some sort of inchoate performance art — actually get annoyed by the fact that we now have to mount a defense of the guy on multiple fronts. See, even if your internal moral bullshit detector doesn't start clanging when Kelly's name comes up — if you can ignore his personal decisions regarding videotapes and accept the guy as a genius at making R&B with the sway of '70s soul and the smoothness of '80s quiet storm, cut with hip-hop braggadocio — the formal excellence of his music unfortunately foregrounds his quirks like plantar warts on a foot model.
This is nothing new, either; Kelly's songs have been stuffed for a decade now with these poker-faced non sequiturs — the "two gorillas making love" ad lib in 2003's "Snake," for instance." Or think of 2000's "A Woman's Threat," a moving song in which Kelly assumes the persona of a long-suffering female lover delivering a litany of what her man stands to lose — "My time, my patience, my love" — if he doesn't shape up. Then Kelly begins telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in precisely the same earnest croon he uses for the rest of the song — maybe more earnest.
But ever since the child pornography charges first cropped up and the guy released an appeal called "Heaven I Need a Hug," nearly everything written about Kelly's music has hinged on some variation of the question "Is he in on the gag or not?" — and usually has questioned his mental health. "Is he gonna end up in prison or getting pills handed to him in a little plastic cup?" the Village Voice quipped in 2004. "Is R. Kelly a joke or a genius?" Pitchfork asked in 2005, reiterating the question in advance of Kelly's new album Double Up. For R&B fans who appreciate Kelly's exquisite craft, this critical chatter is exhausting.
Unfortunately, with Double Up Kelly's lyrical eccentricities and freshman-year conceptual leanings continue to grow like kudzu, and it makes parts of the album a chore. On "Sex Planet," one outer-space metaphor for fucking after another, Kelly actually delivers the tidally inevitable "When I enter your black hole" and "We'll take a trip to planet Uranus" with the granite facade of a hostage negotiator. On "Sweet Tooth," Kelly intimates that his lover's genitals taste like Skittles, though he doesn't mention whether that's tropical-fruit, sour or original flavor.
As a guy who always sounds like he's working from a hastily written first draft, Kelly is still better at agglomeration of batshit asides than a narrative arc. On the Kells-in-prison tale "Best Friend," when asked if there's anything he needs from the outside, Kelly says, "This toilet paper is cutting my ass," and he could really use some Charmin. "Real Talk," one half of a phone argument where Kelly's unheard lover wonders where he's been and who he's been doing, takes his cinéma-vérité rambling to its illogical limit. Kelly sprays the receiver with saliva, suggesting, "Next time your ass get horny, go fuck one of your funky-ass friends," before shouting to his chauffeur to take him home.
Despite being faintly frightening in its intensity, which is new, it's of a piece with Kelly songs like "3-Way Phone Call," and like many of those songs, the music on "Real Talk" could just as easily be the solo from Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" or three minutes of Pong sound effects. It's really got no value as a "song" of the sort that one dances to or sings along with, so some presume Kelly is extending some new Kelly-specific idiom on Double Up. For others, though, Kelly has begun humping the shark as he sings through a vocoder about being "two sexasauruses." Or as Baltimore City Paper contributor John Darnielle recently said when confronted with "Real Talk," "I oppose the critical Buckwheat- ification of R. Kelly, but what can you say when the guy's emotional climax is an appeal to his driver?"
See, sadly for those who want to shift the dialogue about his music, Double Up is hardly Kelly at his best. You can skip any song in which he takes a wack stab at proving he's hard over his guest producers' cruddy (but at least up to date) keyboard-and-bass hip-hop beats, as on "Rollin'" and "Get Dirty." But the best tracks on Double Up are still reminders of Kelly's Isleys-honed ability to craft bounce-worthy radio soul so slickly seductive that it's downright insulting to treat the man as if he was cranking art-brut finger paintings out of his own ass and selling them on a Chicago street corner. The dude's got skills in the studio.
Some critics might argue that we shouldn't be talking about the guy anyway since he's, you know, an alleged child molester. Even if that's true, the shift toward reducing Kelly's music to possibly unintentional stand-up comedy with a beat is lamentable but possibly irreversible, following his last couple of projects. At least Double Up isn't a half-assed conceptual step forward from "Trapped in the Closet."
How could it be unless Kelly was going to buy a harp and follow Joanna Newsom down the prolix primrose path of Ysfirstname.lastname@example.org