CC Issue 01 / Music

Sexuality and Spirituality in the music of R. Kelly

On a superficial level, R. Kelly, one of the seminal figures of contemporary R&B, appears to be the epitome of some hypersexual being. Kelly unashamedly embraces this image on his 1993 debut album, 12 Play (Jive 1993), which includes song titles such as “Freak dat Body,” “I like the Crotch on You,” and the 11-and-a-half minute odyssean R&B extravaganza, “Sex Me (Part 1 & 2).” This public concept of the slow jam crooner was further cemented, though in a more deviant light, when Kelly was indicted on charges on counts of having sex with a minor following the release of a video that allegedly showed Kelly engaging in sex with an underage girl 2002 and also with soliciting child pornography in 2003. Following these legal troubles, Dave Chappelle released his hilarious spoof, “Piss on You,” which augmented the sexually charged conception of Kelly. Needless to say, R. Kelly’s public persona appears to be a one-dimensional entity that seemingly oozes of little else but sexuality.

Despite this popular conception of the, self-proclaimed, “Pied Piper of R&B,” like most things in this world, there appears to be a much more complex undercurrent of thoughts and negotiations in Kelly’s musical output than one would immediately like to believe. As Mark Anthony Neal writes in Popmatters:

The music of R. Kelly has always been rife with blatant contradictions. It has often been difficult to reconcile the man responsible for the 1990s motivational anthem “I Believe I Can Fly” with the man responsible for songs like…“Bump and Grind’ and ‘Feelin’ on Your Booty” (Anthony Neal 222).

This is particularly evident in the compilation, Playlist: The Best of R. Kelly (Jive 2010), which spans the beginning of Kelly’s career up until 2010. Unlike most “Best Of…” compilations, Playlist doesn’t provide a thorough list of Kelly’s most famous songs, but rather focuses on, “The songs that make the artist who they are” (“Playlist: The Very Best of R Kelly.”). Accordingly, this compilation points out an interesting aspect of the singer’s career that many seem to overlook: R. Kelly’s reconciliation of the two seemingly conflicting themes of sexuality and spirituality.

It is an undeniable fact that R. Kelly loves to sing about sex, sexuality, sexual relations, and so on and so forth. This lascivious fascination is definitely not lost in Playlist. Indeed, the compilation highlights the damp, slippery, and sensual synth lines and slow jam beats of early-Kelly era songs such as “Bump N’ Grind (Remix)” and “Your Body’s Callin,” which have sexually absurd and explicit lyrics such as, “So show me some ID before I get knee deep in ya” and “My body is callin’ for you.” This compilation also displays the singer’s interesting use of imagery in songs such as “Ignition (Remix)”: “Girl I’m feelin’ whatchu feelin’ / No more hopin’ and wishin’ / I’m about to take my key ‘n’ / Stick it in da ignition.” Moreover, Playlist doesn’t forget to accentuate Kelly’s sexual narratives in songs like “Hair Braider,” which presents a speaker who’s in a sexual relationship with the women that braids his hair. Indeed, Playlist definitely succeeds in emphasizing R. Kelly’s preposterous, yet entertaining, variations on the themes of sex and sexuality.

Had Playlist merely focused on presenting R. Kelly’s vast body of music that’s about sex, it would have easily been a “Best Of…” type of compilation. However, staying true to its goal of presenting a holistic perspective on an artist’s career, this compilation, interestingly, begins and ends with two seemingly curve ball songs within the public conception of R. Kelly, “I Believe” and “Religious,” as they embody conspicuous spiritual overtones. I emphasize on “spiritual overtones” as neither song explicitly explore theological issues, but rather, use gospel aesthetics and religious imagery as a means to profess the belief that President Obama will bring change in America and to express love to a woman, respectively.

“I Believe” begins with a sample of President Obama’s victory speech in Iowa being played over a sappy piano arrangement. The steady and assertive inflections of Obama’s voice conjure the image an enthusiastic preacher proclaiming some religious truth to his congregation. As the hook and beat kick in, a gospel choir emerges, which further enhances the song’s association with notions of religion and spirituality. Throughout the song, Kelly employs various ambiguous, pseudo-religious lyrics such as “you kept the faith,” “with hope you set us free,” and the song’s title and chorus hook “I believe.” Moreover, the track ultimately culminates with a key change, a technique often used in religious music as a means to create an uplifting sensation. Near the end of the song, the instrumental cuts out, leaving the gospel choir singing in A cappella with only hand claps and percussion as accompaniment, which conjures images of a church choir singing at the top of their lungs and bodies swinging on a Sunday morning. Kelly’s use of gospel musical aesthetic and allusions also appears in songs such as “I Believe I can Fly” and “The World’s Greatest,” which are also featured on Playlist.

In contrast to “I Believe,” “Religious” presents next to zero musical references to gospel music. However, in the process wanting “to tell the world that you’re my girl,” the speaker of song expounds on various religious notions such as repentance, “I repent and change my thuggish ways,” and worship, “Throw up both my hands…I’m on my knees.” Though R. Kelly uses religious imagery as a vehicle to describe his affectionate feelings towards an ambiguous woman, additional notions of spirituality and its associations with morality are inevitably brought up.

Considering R. Kelly’s religious upbringing, it is hard to believe that notions of the church and spirituality didn’t come across the singer’s mind. Indeed, Kelly’s mother was a devout Baptist, who brought Kelly and his siblings to church every Sunday, where Kelly began singing in the choir at age 8. “My mother made sure we were there. We learned wrong from right,” Kelly told USA Today in 1994 (“Timeline of R. Kelly’s life.”).

So what do we, as listeners and fans, make of this seemingly contradictory aspect of R. Kelly’s body of work? Through juxtaposing notions sexuality and spirituality, Kelly’s music seems to challenge the social habit of setting these two human experiences as far apart as possible. Indeed, within religious communities notions of sexuality are often a taboo (understandably so, as the topic is highly sensitive, complex, and abstract). On the other hand, within a secular environment thought sexuality is often explored; notions of spirituality are frequently ignored. Anthony Neal (the Popmatters writer I quoted earlier) suggests that Kelly’s “often absurd and surreal sexual narratives…is a product—a response—to the sexual repression of the Black Church and its institutional satellites” (Anthony Neal 222). Though I agree with Neal to a certain extent, I’m compelled to think that Kelly isn’t merely rebelling against sexual suppression. In considering the singer’s body of work, R. Kelly’s music entreats its listeners to acknowledge, consider, and negotiate between sexuality and spirituality in the human experience.

Works Cited

Anthony Neal, Mark. “The Tortured Soul of Marvin Gaye and R. Kelly.” Da Capo Best Music Writing 2004. Comp. Mickey Hart. Da Capo Press, 2004. Print.

 “Playlist: The Very Best of R Kelly.” Amazon. Amazon, Amazon.com, Inc.. Web. 6 Jul2011. <http://www.amazon.com/Playlist-Very-Best-R-Kelly/dp/B002ZDOYKW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1310001820&sr=8-1&gt;.

 “Timeline of R. Kelly’s life.” Yahoo! Music . Yahoo! Inc. , 13 June 2008. Web. 6 Jul2011. <http://new.music.yahoo.com/r-kelly/news/timeline-of-r-kellys-life–61230034&gt;.

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