He’s never been convicted, but at this point, you’d have to be living in serious denial to think that R. Kelly doesn’t have a statutory rape problem. Even if you dismiss all the lawsuits, the video, and the on-public-record accounts of his alleged underage lasciviousness, you still have to deal with the documented fact that he illegally married Aaliyah when she was just 15, falsifying her age on the marriage license. And forget about denial; if you think that “marriage” wasn’t consummated, you’re fucking crazy.
Think about this when R. Kelly is singing about making her leg shake, or “toasting your juices all night,” as he does on “The Poem,” the opening track of his new album The Buffet. Is the inspiration is a girl, no matter how grown the woman on the album cover is? It’s with this understanding — that in Kelly’s mind, the sex he’s fantasizing about (or even having) might just as easily be with a child — that I listened to The Buffet. How could I not? He’s stepped around the sex on recent releases, but he dives in headfirst here.
The music is almost irrelevant. R. Kelly is objectively a pop genius, with a velvet voice that makes even the most ridiculous lyrics sound smooth. Plenty of critics have written about isolating art from the artists that make it, and the internal struggle that comes with loving art made by shitty humans. But I have to admit, my inability to draw a division between the vile acts R. Kelly’s accused of and the new music he’s released is mostly related to timing.
For some reason, the “Ignition” remix I heard seven times a day on Spring Break ’03 doesn’t have the same effect as hearing him talk about “beating it up like a snare drum” on The Buffet cut “Marching Band.” When I hear “I Believe I Can Fly,” I think about where I was when I first saw Space Jam, or when I hear “What When A Woman’s Fed Up,” all I remember is giggling with my kid brother at the “…some of the best cookin’ you ever had” line. When those songs were ingrained into my memory, I wasn’t thinking about the idea of R. Kelly raping a young girl; few people were.
So is it cool for me to listen to the R, but not The Buffet? Is Trapped In The Closet ruined forever? Probably, and probably not. I, for one, will never forget the paper doves floating above Union Park during his headlining Pitchfork Festival set. He will keep making music. People will still go to his shows.
But mostly, it’s going to be impossible for Kelly to release a record without being dogged by his past (we can probably thank Jessica Hopper and Jim DeRogatis for that), and it’s unlikely that he’ll ever experience the kind of mainstream success he once enjoyed. Because seriously, how can you listen to him make food/oral sex puns and slurping sounds and not feel your skin crawl? I’ve been as guilty as the next critic for my selective memory and willful ignorance in regards to his music, but now, I don’t even have to try. Every new R. Kelly song inspires involuntary repulsion, and even though he couldn’t care less, part of me hates his fucking guts for it.
See you in hell, bruh.