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”)