‘I’m just glad to have a natural-born gift, man’: R. Kelly on his 25 years as a hip-hop titan

Singer, songwriter, production guru – in his prolific career, Kelly has worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to the Isley Brothers and Britney Spears. Now he’s back with his 13th studio album, The Buffet

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2016, 6:00pm

Robert Kelly, aka R. Kelly, has been a writer and purveyor of ribald, celebratory and occasionally even inspiring R&B hits for nearly 25 years.

The Chicago singer, songwriter and producer first appeared during the new jack swing era, and for much of the 1990s provided the de facto R&B sound of the contemporary “blazing hip-hop and R&B” radio format with a string of sex ballads, including Bump N’ Grind and Your Body’s Callin’, mixed with undeniable backyard cookout jams, such as the Ignition (Remix), Fiesta (Remix) and Happy People.

As a producer, Kelly wrote and produced Michael Jackson’s final No. 1 hit, You Are Not Alone, helped some of his heroes, including the Isley Brothers and “Uncle” Charlie Wilson of The Gap Band, return to chart relevance and had hits with Britney Spears, Celine Dion and more.

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Kelly hit true crossover gold with the Grammy-winning (he’s bagged three) inspirational ballad I Believe I Can Fly, which was featured in the movie Space Jam, but in 2002, faced child-sex allegations stemming from a heavily bootlegged sex tape, which arguably derailed his mainstream stardom even though he was eventually acquitted on all counts.

Kelly returned to making hits, including the entertaining and totally crazy, 33-chapter “hip-hopera” video series Trapped in the Closet.

His latest album and tour is for The Buffet, his 13th studio recording, which features many of the tricks of Kelly’s trade.

The album opens with yet another of Kelly’s patented sex metaphors (sexaphors?)The Poem, a classic Kelly monologue that includes the following bons mots: “Good evening, ladies. Are you ready for some hors d’oeuvres? I can tell your body has been lacking the platter of satisfaction your body deserves.”

Another of Kelly’s talents is corralling hot stars to appear on his tracks, and The Buffet has cameos from Ty Dolla Sign, singer Jhené Aiko, Lil Wayne and an honest and tender duet with his daughter Ariirayé.

We talked to Kelly on the same day Prince died, which coloured the conversation. And it turns out that Kelly doesn’t just pepper his lyrics with metaphors; he also speaks in them.

One of the things you have in common with Prince is the ability to absorb the music of your inspirations and filter it through your abilities and come up with music that recalls those inspirations but is still your sound.

Yeah, he paved the way for just being able to say what you feel. If you’re going to throw something on the wall, throw what you feel. If it sticks, it sticks. If it don’t, it don’t – and it stuck. That made me want to write and say what I really and truly felt on my songs to this day. I was very inspired, he left a legacy and a forever path of music for guys like me and even guys out there struggling, trying to be in the game, man. I love hip-hop and everything, but it all starts with the soul, and he was a soul of music.

You’ve always been able to mix some of the old soul with hip-hop and whatever is happening musically in the streets. Has that been a calculated goal?

Somewhat. I always keep an ear to the streets, man. But I think that’s just the way my gift goes. I love old-school music. I grew up listening to old-school music and that’s never gonna stop. But it’s the same as with these phones. If people want to stay in the business and keep competing, you have to upgrade these phones. It’s just like the new Benz; it’s just like the new anything. If you don’t upgrade, then you’re downgrading and then you’re just going to fade away. If you don’t want to fade away, then you have to continue to stay relevant and you have to find ways to do that, and that all comes from being creative and continuing to thrive and reach and stay out of the comfort zone of the industry and reach for the stars and not the sky.

Still, sometimes when a veteran artist with a lengthy track record tries to sound relevant, it can come off as forced and a bit desperate. How do you avoid that?

The only thing different with me is that I don’t try because, like I say, it’s just the way my gift goes. I still got young artists calling me to do tracks and even new artists. A lot of times you might hear me on a record, it’s because someone called me to do it. But yeah, you do have a lot of young cats trying to do R. Kelly, and they don’t come off nice. Just to keep it real with you, but I never try when it comes to music. I never push or force anything. I’m just glad to have a natural-born gift, man, that is able to transform. And that’s just really what it is. I know folks don’t like to see it like that. Some of them, but my fans accept it, and that’s really whom I’m about these days. My fans and the people who have supported me throughout the years, no matter what music I’ve done, they just appreciate my creativity.

I’ve read that you have something like 400 songs in the can. When it’s time to make a record, how do you go from 400 songs to 10 to 15 songs?

I got way more than 400 songs, bro. All these damn years. That ain’t a bragging thing, that’s the truth. I love music, man, and that’s all I do. I don’t know nothing else to do except maybe play basketball here and there or go to the mall a little bit. I stay in the studio, I’m a true studio head, bro. That’s just what I do. I’m always in there. I’m always writing, whether I’m writing The Buffet or the Black Panties album or whatever, I’m always writing a whole ’nother album in the midst of that album because I just love music, man. That it’s. It’s all I do and I don’t chase it. It just comes out of me and I have to lay it down.