R. Kelly’s Coming Back (…And We Can’t Let This Happen)

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Full disclosure: It has never been hard for me.

Often, when people write and/or talk about why they don’t/can’t support R. Kelly anymore, it’s prefaced with a sentence or a paragraph or an entire constitution about their ambivalence. Basically, despite their knowledge of his sordid (and criminal) sexual history, it’s difficult for them to completely stop listening to him because they enjoyed (or still currently enjoy) the R-uh’s music so much.

They eventually do it. But, as Akiba Soloman acknowledged in her piece at Colorlines, it can be a struggle.

For me, though, there has been no struggle. Not because I’m any more moral than any old R. Kelly fans. But because I’ve never been a fan.

I recognize his place in R&B, his importance, and even his musical genius. And I’ve enjoyed some of his songs. But he’s never been an artist that was necessary to me. At least to my enjoyment of music. I grew up such a hip-hop head that the only contemporary R&B that resonated with me was somewhat rap-ish. If you asked a 20 year old me to name his favorite slow jams, instead of “Your Body’s Callin” or “Till The Cops Come Knockin” I would have named “You Got Me” or “Sweet Love.” (Or maybe “Renee” if I was in a bad mood.)

So, after watching the tape—which, all things considered, is up there with The Passion of the Christ and “2 Girls, 1 Cup” on the list of “Things You Only Watch One Time“—and combining that visual confirmation of his thing for underage girls with the already prevalent rumors of his thing for underage girls and his “marriage” to Aaliyah, deciding not to fuck with R. Kelly anymore was an easy decision to make. It was like me deciding not to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches anymore. Sure, I’ve eaten them before. And sure, they can taste good. But, if someone told me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches caused herpes or mouth gout or something, I’d have no problem completely removing them from my life.

Anyway, I’m bringing this all up because, although he’s been off-the-radar for some time, R. Kelly seems poised to return to pop culture relevancy as a Mike Tyson-esque, “he’s so weird and absurd that he’s…cool” type of character. Two weeks ago, he performed with Lady Gaga at the AMA’s. In the last week, I’ve read two separate fawning reviews of his new album, Black Panties. One surfaced on Jezebel, made no mention of his past, and was roundly criticized in their comments. (The Colorlines’ piece reference earlier was also a response to the Jezebel piece.)

Another came from one of my favorite writers, Grantland’s Wesley Morris. Like most of Morris’s work, the review was an enjoyable read. And, to his credit, he did mention Kelly’s history. But while I understand a critic’s need to recognize a work on its artistic merit instead of the artist’s actions, when it comes to R. Kelly, it just doesn’t feel…right.

With other artists guilty of criminal behavior, there can be a certain cognitive dissonance that can happen when the art and the unseemly acts by the artist have no connection. R. Kelly’s music doesn’t allow for that. His art and his actions are irrevocably linked. They can not be unlinked. It’s like shoes and soles. Or Knick fans and disappointment. He makes crazy, nasty, deviant sex music because he’s a crazy, nasty sex deviant. These are not two separate parts of him. Songs like “Marry The Pussy” and “Age Aint Nothing But a Number”—which he wrote and produced—and thoughts like “Hmm. I’m bored. Maybe I’ll go to an 8th grade step practice today and find a new 13 year old to drink my pee.” come from the exact same place. You just can’t listen to him croon about pussy and panties and not wonder if a 14 year old’s vagina was his muse.

Or maybe you can. Maybe he’s been culturally irrelevant for so long that those connections are no longer natural for some people. I suspect this is what’s happening now. Enough time has passed since the last serious allegations against him, so now it’s safe and ironic and even kind of subversively cool to publicly recognize and praise his genius.

You know, I do wonder if I’d feel differently about all of this if I loved his music in the first place. Would I be more ambivalent? Would I’d be less prone to connect his acts with his art? I honestly don’t know how I’d answer any of these questions. I do know one thing, though. I’m glad I don’t have to.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Aaliyah, Drake, And Why We Lie When Famous People Die

Aside from the whole biracial Jewish-Canadian who first became popular by playing a pouty paraplegic on a teen soap opera that was only watched by the type of kids who forged doctor’s excuses to get out of gym class thing, perhaps the most interesting thing about Drake is how he tests the limits of his diehard fans’ fandom.

For instance, I have a friend who happens to be a diehard Drake fan. And, by being very pretty, very educated, somewhat emo, occasionally hipster, slightly Delta, and the type who “loves hip-hop, but not rap,” also happens to fit what I imagine to be the typical diehard Drake fan profile. On numerous occasions, she’s brought up the fact that Drake’s obsession with beef, boning strippers, and saying ridiculous things has made it difficult for her to continue to be his fan. But, a bit of cognitive dissonance allows her to get right back on the bandwagon.

I wonder, though, if Drake fans will be able to forgive him for being haughty enough to release an album featuring tracks from the patron saint of Urban Emo herself, the late Aaliyah Haughton.

We don’t have to wonder, though, how most Aaliyah fans seem to feel about this.

Below is a few tweets curated at AllHipHop.com

You can find a longer list of anti-Drake/Aaliyah collaboration tweets here. 

And, if interested, you can read one of the several articles published this week denouncing this duo.

That there’s been such pushback isn’t surprising. There are few artists who’ve received the type of posthumous reverence that Aaliyah has — it must be a rite of passage for all male hip-hop artists to record an interview saying they had fallen in love with her — and even Drake has turned his body into a bizarre Aaliyah shrine. And, given that she was more “cool” than she was talented — which is saying a lot because she was definitely very talented  — this unusual reverence is understandable

Thing is — and this is a phenomenon that goes much further than Aaliyah — I think we have a tendency to allow our reverence for dead celebrities to assign a certain mystique that almost transubstantiates them. Basically, when they die, we start to lie.

Usually, this process starts with saying something like “If Aaliyah were still alive, she’d…” a way of thinking that’s absurd on two different levels.

1. It presumes that you have any f*cking clue what the hell a dead person would be thinking/doing if they were still alive

In Aaliyah’s case, how do we know that she wouldn’t have wanted to collaborate with Drake?

If you’re old enough to remember listening to Aaliyah in high school, while Brandy had the pop charts and Monica resonated a bit more with the current and future ratchets, she seemed to be the go-to female R&B choice for the counterculture Black kids. Let’s forget for a second that Drake has become such a convenient person to snark. The type of music that populates his albums — moody, emo, occasionally haunting (basically, the type of music produced by people who either rock black eyeliner or date people who rock black eyeliner) — is exactly the type of music Aaliyah was known for. In fact, I can’t think of another current rap artist who’d be a better feature on an Aaliyah album than Drake. But, our mystical appreciation for her doesn’t allow us to fathom the idea that she’d even consider making music with him.

2. It completely disregards the possibility that the artist could have done what most other artists eventually do: fall off

Whenever I hear someone mention how different the rap game would be today if Biggie or Tupac were still alive, I always point back to the same person: DMX.

Why? Well, there may not have been another rap artist who was as universally revered as DMX was in 1997 and 1998. He debut album sold a trillion records and dominated the airwaves. People bought and fought over Clue and Flex mixtapes just to hear a new DMX track. As hard as it is to believe now, when people first purchased Jigga’s Hard Knock Life, “Money, Cash, Hoes” was the track people were most anticipating. He was even cast as the lead character in the biggest (and most ridiculous) hip-hop movie ever made.

Today though, 15 years later, DMX is equal parts punchline and crackhead. No one lists him on any “Top 20″ rankings, and a DMX release today might go double cat litter. It’s as if 97-99 didn’t even exist.

I’m bringing this up because DMX’s descent is the most obvious example of the fact that we have absolutely no clue what shape Aaliyah’s or Biggie’s or Tupac’s career would be in today if they stayed alive. They could have very easily fallen off just as DMX did. For all we know, Aaliyah could have had a Maia Campbell-esque breakdown, Biggie could have lost weight, moved to Nashville, and decided to do country gospel, and Tupac could be f*cking Khloe Kardashian. He might even have a reality show called “All Eyez On Me…and Khloe”

We just don’t f*cking know. But, not knowing is and will always be better than pretending that we do.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)