Is the Pied Piper of R&B having a laugh?
R. Kelly in his video for “Echo”, 2009
From The New Yorker:
In his twenty-year exploration of the limits of the R. & B. sex ballad, R. Kelly has often toed the line between satiric and satyric. In his song “Sex Planet,” he made the obvious joke about Uranus; in his song “Sex in the Kitchen,” he made the obvious joke about salad-tossing; in his song “Pregnant,” male backup singers (ominously? chivalrously?) offered to “knock you up.” He has referred to himself as a “sexosaurus” and a “lesbian R. & B. thug.” He has attempted onomatopoetic renderings of cunnilingus and of flesh skidding down a stripper pole. He has yodeled, twice, in the songs “Echo” and “Feelin’ on Yo Booty.” (To perform the latter song in concert, he donned a top hat and cape for an extended operatic remix.) And then there is his unfinished magnum opus “Trapped in the Closet,” a series of twenty-two songs (and counting) featuring a gay pastor, a stuttering pimp, and a woman named Bridget whose lover is a midget.
All of which inspires the inevitable question: he’s kidding, right?
In one sense, the answer is a straightforward “yes.” No one rhymes “Bridget” with “midget” by accident. R. Kelly knows he’s funny, no less than Gene Simmons knew he was wearing makeup. Some of his songs are sincerely sexy; others would cause any amorous embrace to dissolve into giggles. Yet Kelly’s lyrics sometimes overshoot farce to reveal a hint of menace. In the 2009 song “Echo,” after describing what sounds like a punishing regimen of carnal contortions, he sings, “When you need a break, I’ll let you up, I’ll let you breathe / Wash your face, get something to eat / Then come back to the bedroom.”
“Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me,” Kelly’s breezy, competently ghostwritten memoir, raises as many questions as it answers. Even the author’s bio (“R. Kelly, the king of R&B, makes music of epic proportions”) can be interpreted as a self-aware joke or a cocksure statement of purpose. A boxing fan, Kelly knows that what a fighter does outside the ring—trash talking, maintaining a stylish fur collection, appearing only tenuously sane—can destabilize the competition. As sublimely campy trash talk, “Soulacoaster” succeeds, if only by reminding the reader of the depth of Kelly’s résumé.