The Righteous Brother : R. Kelly's ambitious album of genre- spanning songs finds him updating the spiritually grounded R&B; of such greats as Al Green and Donny Hathaway.

Dave Hoekstra is a staff writer at the Chicago Sun-Times and a contributing music writer to Playboy magazine

The best way to tell when R. Kelly has a new album is to count the number of friends who come out to play basketball with the R&B; superstar at a gym just five blocks from the United Center, home of Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

You can usually count on finding Kelly with burly bodyguard Big John, who stands as tall as the Hancock Building, a handful of gym rats including Alan Brown (the brother of Bulls guard Randy Brown) and Kelly's 52-year-old father-figure George Daniels, a former Chess Records janitor who now owns a popular West Side record store.

But in the last few weeks the parking lot at Hoops has been full. A real space jam--with a new album ready to raise his profile, Kelly has become a magnet for a large squad of players who believe they can fast-break with the city's biggest music celebrity.

The album, a two-disc set titled "R.," is easily the most ambitious project of his career. It's his first record in three years and the follow-up to his 4-million seller "R. Kelly."

Kelly, 30, has never extended himself stylistically as much as he has on "R.," which has sold nearly 350,000 copies in just two weeks. The collection's 29 tracks explore hip-hop, old-school soul, funk, gospel, throwaway opera and--in the hit anthem "I'm Your Angel," which Kelly sings with Celine Dion--pop. The elegance of "Angel" underscores Kelly's rapid maturation as a songwriter. The duet extends the roaring majesty of the Grammy-winning "I Believe I Can Fly," which closes the album.

"I'm Your Angel" was written, produced and arranged by Kelly. Dion and Kelly trade off on smooth vocals before joining voices in front of a 25-piece choir. It's hard to believe that four years ago Kelly was singing "I Like the Crotch on You" and "Freak Dat Body" and occasionally dropping his pants in concert.

"I want people to notice my writing abilities are real and that I'm not just stuck in one situation," Kelly said during a 1 a.m. interview at Chicago Trax Recording Studios, in the shadows of the Cabrini Green housing project.

"I've been boxed with one style of music. I want to show people that I'm a global writer and I can do 'Half on a Baby' [a smooth love song and the first single from "R."] and turn around and do 'I Believe I Can Fly.' "

Kelly's sense of spiritual awakening began to emerge in public during a 1997 concert in Chicago when his voice trembled as he proclaimed, "I've come to find out that whatever it is you want, it's in the Lord. I used to be flying in sin--now I'm flying in Jesus."

Standing alongside Kelly was his spiritual soul-mate, hip-hop gospel singer Kirk Franklin. Kelly has since said that his concert proclamation has been overblown. But to confine his recent growth to mere shifts in musical styles marginalizes the newfound flourishing of his soul. Kelly is now flying with the gospel-soul duality of Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Chicagoan Sam Cooke.

"I'm experimenting with the way I want to go," Kelly said. "It's a big decision. I want to be careful about the type of songs I come out with. I want to look at myself and my life. I'll slack up on the lyrics. My old lyrics are kind of bogus. It's all part of growing. You can't stay in one spot.

"But everyone is thinking I changed my life. I'm not that different. I'm just doing what everyone else is trying to do, and that's to be righteous--don't be out there in clubs, hitting on all kind of women. That's dangerous. You have to change your life, and you need God in your life to make that change. You can't do it by yourself."

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Kelly rarely arrives at the studio before midnight. He likes the isolation of the night. He is generally shy around strangers. Whether in the studio, on the basketball court or during an interview, he rarely breaks out in a hearty smile.

Despite the lyric of "I Believe I Can Fly," Kelly in fact does not like to fly. He takes buses to all his concerts. Kelly is not married, although in 1994 rumors rolled through Chicago that he was married to singer Aaliyah, then 16. Kelly consistently refuses to discuss his personal life.

But the uplifting gospel spirit that frames "I'm Your Angel" and "I Believe I Can Fly" sheds light on his roots. Kelly was born in Chicago and attended Kenwood High School, the South Side prep academy that also produced soul diva Chaka Khan and rapper Da Brat.

Music teacher Lena McLin was a pivotal force in Kelly's life. McLin's uncle was the late gospel legend Thomas A. Dorsey. She fronts her own gospel group, Lena McLin & the McLin Singers, and is pastor at the Holy Vessel Baptist Church on the South Side.

McLin, now 69, talked Kelly into wearing dark glasses and singing Stevie Wonder's 1982 hit "Ribbon in the Sky" at a Kenwood High School talent show. "That night it was like Spiderman being bit," said Kelly, who still wears dark glasses on occasion. "I discovered this power. I knew I had something then."

McLin has patiently watched Kelly come of age. "There's so much about Robert that people don't know," she says. "He has a beautiful soul. He has innumerable ideas. He started off by learning the old Italian bel canto school of singing. He choreographed all of our shows at school. Someday I want him to do the life of my uncle. I want him to play Dorsey either in a movie or a Broadway show. All you had to do was look at Robert and you knew he was called."

McLin has become a second mother to Kelly, whose mother, Joann, died in 1992. She was a passionate fan of Chicago soul singers, notably the late Donny Hathaway, a major influence on Kelly. The longest track on "R." is the six-minute old-school ballad "If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time," which Kelly began composing with his mother in 1985.

"My mom and I came up with the hook of that song when I was 16," Kelly said. "There were no lyrics or anything. We used to sing that song on my little Casio keyboard. About four months ago, my stepfather said he had some tapes of me and my mother singing that song.

"At first I didn't want to hear it because I didn't know how I would take to hearing her voice again. Finally I told him to bring the tapes over. I decided to write it and finish that hook and keep it an old type of song."

Kelly learned his lessons well. He understands that the main ingredient of 1960s and '70s soul--the lead voice--shouldn't be diminished by stacks of keyboards and technological clutter.

That's how Chicago soul has always worked. Carl Davis developed what is commonly known as the Chicago Sound by producing hits such as Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher," Tyrone Davis' "Turn Back the Hands of Time" and Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl."

"Motown used to put a picture frame together, put in all the background and set the artist to the frame," Carl Davis says. "We tend to start with the artist, put him there, and frame everything around him."

Kelly's elaboration on that theme accounts for his success.

"A guy like Donny Hathaway had a focused, sexual texture in his voice that I always wanted in mine," Kelly said. "He had smooth, soulful tones, but he was spiritual at the same time. I cried like a baby when I found out he passed away."

In 1979, Hathaway died at 33 in a fall from a New York hotel in what police classified as suicide.

The most daring song on "R." is "Suicide," laced with extended blues and gospel chords and a clacking Memphis guitar.

"That's the first song I did for this album," Kelly explained. "I didn't start out going in that [blues] direction. I was messing around, developing beats and a couple of chords. . . .

"Sometimes you feel like ending it. Thank God we don't. But sometimes we do, whether it's over someone you love or someone you lost or someone you loved and lost. Money or whatever. It is a reality song."

Kelly admitted that he has known that feeling.

"Sure, but not in a long time," he said as he swiveled in a chair behind a state-of-the-art console in the recording studio. "I haven't felt like that in a very long time, though. And I don't plan on feeling like that again."

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Michael Jordan is more than a basketball buddy to Kelly.

It was Jordan who commissioned Kelly to write "I Believe I Can Fly" for the hit film "Space Jam," and Kelly wound up winning three Grammys for the inspirational ballad: best R&B; song, male R&B; vocal and song written for a movie.

"I Believe I Can Fly" also caught Dion's attention. In a separate interview, she said, "I didn't know R. Kelly before [she sings], 'I believe I can flyyyyyy! . . . ' That's such an incredible song. I heard it in the car, I heard it on the radio. I became a fan, and meeting him was a very big thrill. He came to Montreal, and to sing with him was great. He's easy to get along with, a very nice person."

The lyrics for "I'm Your Angel" came to Kelly in a dream. "It was a moment in time," he said. "It was in my sleep. I woke up and took it to the studio. You wake up one morning feeling one way and wake up another morning feeling another way. If you're a painter, you're going to paint the way you feel.

"I actually wrote 'Angel' for myself, but it . . . needed a female voice on it, and Celine is who I heard. . .I love her music and I love her voice. I'd work with her again."

Part of Kelly's maturation process includes the production deal he signed several months ago with Interscope Records. Kelly has started his own Rock Land Records label, which is distributed through Interscope. The self-titled album from female singer Sparkle earlier this year was the debut product from Rock Land.

Kelly brushed at his dark gold sweater--a symbolic gesture. Since 1995, when he wrote and produced Michael Jackson's hit "You Are Not Alone," just about everything he has touched has turned to gold. His 1996 collaboration with the Isley Brothers, "Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)," was No. 1 on the R&B; chart for six weeks in a row.

"I've established myself as an artist and producer," Kelly said. "So we thought it was time to lend my name to other people. . . . There will be a lot of artists on the label, but up next is the Eddie Murphy-Martin Lawrence soundtrack ["Life"]. We're already five songs into that."

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Kelly maintains a reserved but confident demeanor. The only thing that can match the intensity of his legendary marathon recording sessions is the passion he brings to the basketball court.

Kelly, who is 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, plays three or four times a week at Hoops. In the summer of 1997 he was a reserve guard for the Atlantic City Seagulls in the minor league United States Basketball League. As part of Kelly's contract, he was allowed to miss games or practices to tend to his singing career.

"It wasn't a gimmick," said Ken Gross, the Seagulls owner who signed Kelly. "He's a ballplayer. He can play."

Every year around Labor Day, Kelly hosts a benefit celebrity basketball game in Chicago, inviting the likes of Snoop Dogg, Da Brat and Xscape.

Kelly has gone one-on-one with Jordan in Chicago-area private clubs. "Michael and I have played a few times," Kelly said. "I can't match up with him. Only in dreams." And when Kelly kicks off his tour in March, he will bring along a portable basket to help him work out between concerts.

"The album is all over the place personality-wise, character-wise, [musical] label-wise, it can go anywhere," he said, summarizing the "R." CD. "I wasn't chasing this album. I was going to let the album come to me. That's why it took me 18 months to finish it. I wanted it to be as real as real can get. When people hear the songs, they can see what I'm saying more than just hear what I'm saying. I want them to see a picture in their minds." *

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