Sometimes I'll play a game in my head where I imagine a little gnomish man cornering me in an alleyway some dark night. He peels back his purple cloak to reveal a potato-size time-travel machine. This device, he tells me in a creepy French accent, will transport me to any musical performance that has ever taken place on this Earth, from Beethoven to the Beatles. But I can choose only one, is the catch, because there is usually a catch when a tiny French troll tempts you with late-night magic.
So I think and think. There's Hendrix at Woodstock or Elvis in Hawaii. But what about Whitney Houston or Amy Winehouse or Michael Jackson, and — given the year we've had so far — how could one not pick a final Prince or Bowie concert. Decisions, decisions. The wee sorcerer is growing impatient.
For years, my response to this question has flip-flopped. But now, I'm pleased to say, I have my definitive answer: sometime in the late '80s, underneath the Chicago train, listening to R. Kelly freestyle about French fries. Because that was a thing that happened.
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"Whenever I saw people come down the subway with McDonald's, I would make up a McDonald's song," Kelly recalls over the phone. "I would sing about it. I would sing about how I wish I could have some of those fries. And people would just laugh." He found composing customized on-the-spot songs led to more tips but also — and most important to Kelly — more attention. He would stick around all day, catching the morning, lunch, and post-work crowds. He learned a lot in those years. He learned how to sing loud enough to be heard over the train. He had to develop the stamina his all-day performances required. And underneath the "L," as Chicagoans call their city's elevated train, Kelly learned a lesson he still holds tightly to his chest today: "People love to laugh. People love to have fun."
But although listening to R. Kelly ad-lib about fast food is cause enough to go back in time, there is another reason I want to be back there, beneath that train with him. Because, back then, I'd have been able to enjoy his music without the aftertaste of some pretty heinous allegations.
Those allegations include multiple charges of sex offenses with underage women. Kelly has been accused of having a sexual relationship with the late R&B singer Aaliyah while she was 15 and he was 27. In 2007, Kelly stood trial for allegedly urinating on and having sex with an underage girl in a sex tape that had surfaced. The girl was believed to be 14 at the time of the video. Kelly was eventually found not guilty after a lengthy, drawn-out trial.
And this, rightly so, is what we talk about when we talk about R. Kelly. But it's not what we talk about when we talk to R. Kelly. Before our interview, R. Kelly's rep made it clear to me several times that all questions were to pertain to his upcoming tour and music.
Kelly did confront some tough questions (sort of) in an interview with GQ this past January. But when the most direct questions of his past allegations of statutory rape came up, he was vague and circular. The most important questions were paired with unsatisfying answers.
The GQ story did reveal, however, that Kelly prefers to sleep in a closet — the actual, literal closet of his Chicago apartment. So at least we have that.
In the days leading up to my interview with Kelly, I was fighting the same mental tug-of-war I felt when I attended Chris Brown's Miami concert last September (Kelly, by the way, told me Brown is his favorite R&B performer working today: "That's my guy, my little brother"). This feeling is summed up best in the first few seconds of the R. Kelly song "Bump N' Grind": My mind's telling me no/But my body — my body's telling me yes."
When I was a little kid and my parents would take a quick trip to Walmart, I would sprint to the kitchen, springboard myself onto the counter, and start eating ice cream until I heard the tires of my mother's SUV snapping twigs in the driveway. She'd walk in and I'd play it cool. Sticky and guilt-ridden, I knew I'd done something wrong. But as I swirled the Häagen-Dazs residue around in my mouth, I knew why I'd done it.
What do we do with supremely talented people accused of and, in some cases, found guilty of supremely wicked crimes?
The quick and most logical answer is to cast them away, boycott their art. This never outright works (see Chris Brown) but sometimes it can at least have an impact on a person's career (see Bill Cosby).
Over the phone, Kelly is sweet and earnest. He tells the story of how his very first music teacher forced him to perform at a school assembly. Sensing his nerves, the teacher gave him a pair of sunglasses and told him to pretend he was blind. She had a classmate lead him onto the stage, and he performed "Ribbon in the Sky" by Stevie Wonder. "It was like Peter Parker being bit by the spider," Kelly says. "I believe that day, musically, I became Spider-Man in some type of way." He still wears sunglasses onstage today for both practical (the bright lights) and emotional reasons.
"Sometimes I do get a little shy. I do get a little nervous in front of crowds. I don't know what that is. It may not seem like that because I perform the way I do, but I'm always trying to please people on that stage and make sure I do that right thing... And sometimes I'm nervous about doing that, and sometimes I wear my sun shades."
In moments like these, a person's image of Kelly can begin to soften and warp like plastic left out in the sun. Perspective can shift even further when you listen to him talk about his childhood, which was brutally difficult and included, according to Kelly, long-term molestation by an immediate family member. Asked why this sort of abject horror is rarely mirrored in Kelly's often upbeat and jovial songs, he makes it sound like a simple decision. "I've seen a lot of violence and things like that. I had a choice: either join it or detach myself from it. And my mother always told me: 'There's more than you see here out in the world,'?" he explains. "I started developing my gift, and I realized that every time I sing, people laugh or people cry or people are touched or something like that... That happiness that I always wanted to have in the hood, I saw that I could put it in others. And once I put it in others, that would make me happy."
This is all very inspiring and can, again, make you see him in a slightly warmer light.
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But then you read about his past and mull over the credible allegations against him and the scales of judgment once again tip against him.
So what do we do with R. Kelly? Ignore him if you like, but he won't stay in that closet forever. He's out and about, touring and performing songs from his 13 studio albums and writing more chapters of his famed Trapped in the Closet series like a little George R&B Martin.
You can listen or cover your ears. Or just wait for a little man to tug on your shirt and offer to transport you back to a simpler time.