“KINGDOM COME,” FROM V MAGAZINE V88 THE MUSIC ISSUE
PHOTOGRAPHY ALBERT WATSON
FASHION ANNA TREVELYAN
TEXT PATRIK SANDBERG
IN THE 20 YEARS SINCE HIS DEBUT SOLO ALBUM, 12 PLAY, THE KING OF R&B HAS WORN A HEAVY CROWN. THROUGH LEGAL TROUBLES, SEX SCANDALS, AND A SURGERY THAT ALMOST COST HIM HIS VOICE, R. KELLY HAS ENDURED BY SUBVERTING EXPECTATIONS AND ENTERTAINING US WITH A HOST OF THEATRICS, LEADING TO OVER 50 MILLION ALBUMS SOLD. IN AN INTIMATE SHOOT WITH SUPERMODEL IRINA SHAYK, HE’S STILL PROVING THAT THERE AIN’T NOTHING WRONG WITH A LITTLE BUMP ‘N’ GRIND
When a pop megastar enters the room, there can be a strange satisfaction in seeing a king-size entourage in tow. On a crisp December afternoon at a studio in SoHo, the elevator doors part and R. Kelly swoops onto the premises, adorned in Versace sunglasses and an enormous fur-trimmed coat. He’s flanked by so many managers, bodyguards, and assorted personnel it’s nearly impossible to get an adequate glimpse of him. In the age of social media, when being accessible is increasingly in vogue, the R&B titan represents an almost antiquated brand of celebrity excess, one that hearkens back to the early-’90s MTV heyday in which he made his name. During negotiations for this story, publicist Theola Borden had lamented that to keep R. Kelly in town costs an average of $22,000 a night. His hospitality rider includes a dozen long-stemmed red roses, 24 black towels, broiled lobster, Grey Goose vodka, Hennessy cognac, and Moet & Chandon champagne. While on set, I make the mistake of looking at him when he bursts into a bit of song in his dressing room, and a visibly haggard staffer frantically ushers me out of sight. Suffice it to say, when it comes to being the King of R&B, Robert Sylvester Kelly is not in the business of being subtle.
“Musically and creatively I feel like I’m a survivor,” the superstar tells me a few weeks later, over the phone, from the comfort of his tour bus. He’s en route from Detroit, where he played on New Year’s Eve, to his home in Atlanta, where he primarily resides. In conversation he’s affable, generous with his time, and surprisingly easygoing. “I do what I have to do to excite the crowd. I do whatever it takes to raise eyebrows and to win.” This is a tactic employed since the beginning of his career, when he debuted with his singing group Public Announcement, in 1992. His A&R executive, Wayne Williams, recalls seeing them perform at a backyard barbecue in 1990 and knowing that Kelly was born for the stage.
“The way I saw girls looking at him and reacting to what he was doing reminded me of seeing videos of Elvis,” Williams recalls. “The reaction was that extreme. I knew he needed to sign with me.” Williams has been working with Kelly ever since. It’s worth noting the unspoken quality about Kelly that breeds a tremendous amount of loyalty among his team, his collaborators, and his fans. His performances have been described as churchlike by critics, emphasizing a near religious fanaticism among his audiences. When court cases involving statutory rape and sexual assault surfaced during the ’90s and early naughts, and threatened to castrate his career, legions of his disciples (a large percentage of them women) stuck by him. This past November, Kelly released his twelfth album, Black Panties, twenty years after the debut of his first solo record, 12 Play. The full-circle nature of the album, both stylistically and in terms of its success, has at least partially helped exhume the scandals that continue to plague him today. Some say it’s a penance he’ll never fully pay. Others argue it’s a closed case best left in the past. Whatever your stance, it’s hard to imagine anyone more suited, for better or worse, to inhabit the spotlight.
You described yourself as a survivor. When critics try to bring up certain things from your past, how do you weather that?
R. KELLY The more a soldier wins, the more the other soldiers want to take him out. You have to know how to metaphorically and spiritually use your gift to be your shield. So I shield myself with my gift. I stay behind it and I continue to make music. And when the music is sharpened, I shoot it out there. I’m not a master, but I learned a lot from my teacher Lena McLin. She was basically my Ms. Miyagi and I was her Daniel-san. I would listen to everything she would tell me and I’m still doing that today.
Was it a strategic decision after 20 years to return to the original R. Kelly sound?
RK It was really for my fans. Everyone has been asking me when I’m going to do another baby-making album, because that’s what started me out. I’ve been all around the world musically, in every genre. I can write “I Believe I Can Fly,” and I can write “Bump ’N’ Grind.” Now is the time to bring it back around.
Is it true you’re planning a sequel to the record?
RK Absolutely. It’s called White Panties. And you can expect a whole other level.
Are you compromising your experimental side by creating something so specifically for your fans?
RK No. I always follow what my spirit tells me to do. When I get into the studio I write from my heart. I try to write life and not songs. People live life and when you write life you’re going to mess around and touch somebody’s heart, and they’ll relate to you and what you’re singing about.
Why did you decide to enlist artists like 2 Chainz and Future?
RK When I’m in the studio, I let my music and my lyrics do a kind of casting call. My music feels like a movie to me. I can hear in my head who should be on the song, and then I make a call. With 2 Chainz and Future, these guys respect my music and I respect what they do, so it’s just like a hand going into a glove.
Now you’re going on the “King & Queen” tour with Mary J. Blige. Do you have plans to sing together?
RK It’s a very exciting thing when two people like Mary and me come together. It’s never been done, but it kind of makes sense, and you’re like, Wow! And this is very exciting for me because I’m a fan of hers. I’m in the studio right now working on a song for me and Mary. I’m even looking forward to proposing that we do a whole album together. But this is the first I’ve mentioned it. The “King & Queen” album.
What about working with Lady Gaga? V has a special relationship with her. What has it been like collaborating and performing together?
RK It’s amazing, man. It’s an honor to be working with greatness. When I say that I say it with all my heart, because she is great on the stage and off. She is so talented. I was doing a show and she ended up on the side of the stage with her friends watching. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I was wondering why people were screaming so loud! After the show she ended up giving me a call about a track and I was like, “Hell yeah! Send it to me, let me hear what it is!” The next thing you know, it was all over the radio.
The TV performances for that song have been so amazing, and also very theatrical. Why are these aspects of performance important to you?
RK The visual is the real challenge, because you want people to go home and remember it for the rest of their lives. Once you accomplish that, with a song and a visual, that’s what gives you legacy and power.
Where does your energy come from? You’re known for your showmanship.
RK My vision and my music is very athletic, if you will. And I don’t go by the basic moves. Some players shoot basketball exactly how they’re supposed to, but Michael Jordan can do anything on the court, he can flip it behind his back, get knocked down, and it will still go in. I’m not calling myself Michael Jordan, but musically I do what I have to do. When it comes to the game of music, I would throw the song against the wall if I felt it would draw the attention of the people and make them go, Wow! It’s a rollercoaster. I’ve got all these twists and turns and I try to play that when I’m working.
I associate that type of creative expression most with your ongoing saga, Trapped in the Closet. I don’t think anybody expected it at the time, and now it’s such a strong part of your visual iconography. Will you ever revisit it further or follow it up with another film?
RK Absolutely. When it comes to Trapped in the Closet, I want my fans to know that there is a lot more to come, and it’s forever. I’m very confident in writing it.
What do you mean when you say forever?
RK When I first started writing Trapped in the Closet, I didn’t know myself what it was. I had one chapter and I had no hook. It never turned into a song, it was just a cliff-hanger and one chapter led to another, and the next thing you know I have all of these chapters and now I have a leash on it. I can walk it wherever I want. I have a lot of characters. I have 57 more chapters that I haven’t released yet that are going to be released. This thing is forever.
So you’re going to keep working on it until the end of time?
RK Absolutely! My manager has also been putting pitches into Broadway and talking about this being a Broadway thing. Even if it’s not on Broadway, we’re going to do a play for Trapped in the Closet, because it just spells that out. Trapped in the Closet the book is the prequel meets the sequel. The book is about where these people were and who they were before the first chapter. I’m two months into writing the book and it’s very interesting because I know if I was a fan of the story I would want to know where did Chuck come from before he met Rufus? Why is Luscious being put out and not being claimed by his father, Rudolph? And Rosie loves him, his mom loves him, but you know the real fans would love to know the rest, their depth and the backstory.
Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of ideas?
RK You know, if Apple can keep coming out with iPhones every other week and Michael Jordan can keep putting out shoes, I have a factory of music in me that I know is great material. Why not just continue to keep putting it out? I’m going to start putting albums out like Michael Jordan shoes, because I don’t want my fans to miss out on great material. They deserve to hear it. They love it. I love doing it. So I’m going to continue to come with it.