R. Kelly is, arguably, the most successful R&B artist of the past quarter-century. As 2017 begins, the Chicago-born vocalist, songsmith and producer remains one of the most prolific, as well.
When “The King of R&B” brings his “The Buffet” show to the Grand Sierra Resort’s Grand Theatre on Jan. 14, expect a smorgasbord of material ranging from soul to blues and even country — plus a mix of nasty bedroom banter juxtaposed with child- and grandmother-friendly innocence, reflecting Kelly’s widely twisting current of hits. Prepare to hear the bluntly propositional “Bump N’ Grind” and the seductive “Your Body’s Callin’,” as well as one of the seminal ballads of Millennials’ childhoods: “I Believe I Can Fly” — the signature song (and winner of three Grammy Awards) of the 1996 live-action/animated basketball-comedy movie “Space Jam.”
“I Believe I Can Fly” soared Kelly into the music-industry ether as a writer, arranger, producer and performer, and he’s remained fairly stratospheric ever since with a steady output — either cranking out his own material or writing, guest singing, producing or remixing for megastars such as Michael Jackson and Jay-Z, Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and Celine Dion.
It’s continuing the flood of material from Kelly that has allowed him to sell 40 million albums and garner a bedroom full of industry awards. Toward the end of 2016, Kelly released a critically lauded remix of DJ Snake’s “Let Me Love You (Feat. Justin Bieber).” His current tour takes its name, “The Buffet,” from Kelly’s 13th studio album, which contained a smash summer jam “Backyard Party” and a high-charting single, “Marching Band” — helping the silky-voiced singer reassert his claim as the King of R&B.
“I have fans from numerous generations listening to my music now and I wanted to provide everyone with something they could enjoy,” Kelly said in a statement released to promote the album.
By now, a generation of Americans have grown up with Kelly’s caramel voice that ranges from a Barry White-ish baritone to a Michael Jackson-esque alto. The 49-year-old entertainer also is maintaining his presence in the news media — generating both positive and controversial coverage. A large spread in GQ magazine a year ago contained an interview and profile of the singer. Headlined, “The Confessions of R. Kelly,” it led off about how the Sears Tower was built in Chicago when Kelly was a small child. When he was 9, Kelly and two friends bicycled to the vertigo-inducing skyscraper and challenged each other to stand next to it.
“A lot of kids were scared to do it because it actually felt like it was moving and falling over,” Kelly recalled in the interview — fittingly conducted in a room on the tower’s 99th floor.
While his friends chickened out of the dare (Kelly’s older brother had told them if they got too close, the building would fall on them), Kelly — already burning with ambition to make his mark in the world — mustered the courage. “I put my hands up to the Sears Tower and I stood up and looked dead at it. I stood there for a long time.”
What were his thoughts?
“I said, ‘I’m coming for you.’”
The magazine has uploaded a video of Kelly’s 45-minute, cigar-clutching narrative about his turbulent youth in the tough South Side of Chicago, where, born Robert Sylvester Kelly, he was raised in a public-housing project with three siblings by a single mother. Kelly claimed in his autobiography, “Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me,” that the house was frequently full of women, and when his mother or grandparents weren’t home, one of the female guests would sexually abuse him.
Performing in the streets
A high school music teacher encouraged him to quit basketball to pursue music. After dropping out of school, Kelly began street performing under an elevated train station. He eventually formed a group with friends, and after its disbanding was signed to Jive Records in 1991 and paired with a group called Public Announcement.
Kelly went solo after that, and superstardom beckoned after he wrote, arranged, produced and performed “I Believe I Can Fly.”
In his video monologue, the bald, bearded and shaded Kelly mixed spoken-word-style storytelling — with hand gestures and dramatic inflections — with finger-snapping singing in his feathery, gospel-influenced, vibrato-rippling tenor.
“Born in the ghetto. Fourteen years old,” Kelly led off, shaking his head at the traumatic memory of riding his Huffy bicycle on the mean streets of his neighborhood. “My mom says, ‘You can go two blocks and come back.’ I said (singing), ‘OK mom, two blocks and back. I promise two blocks and back.’ And I started pedaling my bike, and I was the coolest guy in the world.
“Pow! I heard a gunshot. I looked to my right. I looked to my left. I looked behind me. I didn’t know what happened. But out of nowhere, I started feeling woozy. I got really dizzy. I started feeling myself. Then I felt — I did this — my hand was full of blood. And I looked, and my arm was swollen up so big, it was like a kneecap was on my arm right here. And I fell and hit the ground off of my bike.
“And I remember opening my eyes just a little bit. I saw all of these guys running towards me. I said to myself, ‘Thank you, help, help.’ But actually, it was the guys who shot me. They were taking my bike.”
Doctors left the bullet where it was lodged near a nerve in the teenager’s shoulder, knowing if they tried extricating the projectile, it could paralyze his arm.
Kelly also recalled how singing in the shower as a shy boy — the reverberation allowing him to hear his voice intimately — gave him the confidence to begin singing throughout the house.
“When I dropped out of high school and became a street performer, I was trying to find that reverb, that echo, my voice, that could echo my life, so the world could hear the gift that I had in me,” he said.
Kelly developed his craft in the outdoor inner-city acoustics — learning to project louder than the trains roaring on elevated subway-system platforms— and heeded the sage counsel of his music teacher: “Do not write songs. Write life.”
Kelly defended his wide-ranging song subjects and styles.
“Sex is life. So don’t judge me. Don’t be mad at me if I make a gospel album. That’s life. Don’t go getting hating, spreading rumors about me, because I make a club banger.”
In the GQ interviews, Kelly spoke about the lawsuits he’s settled with women who accused him of improprieties, including sex with underage girls. He asserted his innocence and expressed regret on not facing his accusers in a courtroom, saying that out-of-court settlements create a public presumption of guilt.
“That’s how normal people think who don’t know and understand the life of a celebrity,” Kelly said.
He did stand trial on a charge of making child pornography, but was acquitted.
On the record
Kelly openness in speaking on the record to GQ belied his usual ground rule for interviews: any questions veering off topic from his music to issues of a personal nature will result in the interview’s immediate termination.
Kelly invoked that rule in a 2015 live-video interview with the Huffington Post, when he walked off the set after being asked whether he was concerned about whether his history of sexual-abuse allegations could impact sales of his new album. There also has been an online petition drive to ban him from performing at the Soulquarious music festival in Santa Ana, California, in February. (He’s headlining with soul diva Erykah Badu.)
But R. Kelly fans continue to swarm to his shows.
A review in the Miami New Times of a Buffet Tour stop at AmericanAirlines Arena in May praised the Broadway production feel of the show, as well as Kelly’s personal approach of addressing the crowd frequently, including with “not-so-subtle, but genuinely charming humor.” The review zeroed in on “the dichotomy fans have come to expect from Kelly: raunchy depravity oddly mixed in with innocence.”
The predominately female attendees were treated to plenty of ad-libbed quips dripping with innuendo, and reveled in the naughty numbers such as, “You Remind Me of Something.” But the Millennials among them also surely had their innocent childhood memories stirred by “I Believe I Can Fly.”
Again, R. Kelly makes no apologies about his strange range of material. He’s romantic. He loves women. But not — as he emphasized to the GQ writer — underage women.
In concert, he’s sung, “I’m looking for someone to come home with me. All you gotta do is be 21 and over.”
As he told GQ: “I’m not, you know, this innocent guy with a halo over his head.”