Singer R. Kelly revels in scandal

OUTRAGEOUSLY HIMSELF: Despite his legal troubles, R&B singer R. Kelly, 41, has capitalized on his reputation for outlandish sexual escapades, and his career is still going strong.
OUTRAGEOUSLY HIMSELF: Despite his legal troubles, R&B singer R. Kelly, 41, has capitalized on his reputation for outlandish sexual escapades, and his career is still going strong.
(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Sex scandals have derailed countless pop-star careers, but R. Kelly’s has remained robust, even with his long-delayed trial on 14 counts of child pornography looming.

Jury selection began Friday.

The singer, 41, has sold more than 12 million records and videos since the charges first surfaced in June 2002. Last year he scored three top-10 R&B singles, and his 2007 album, “Double Up,” sold nearly a million copies despite an industry-wide economic slump. His last major tour, in 2006, earned revenue of $8.3 million.

Kelly has maintained his bestselling status by remaining prolific; he has produced an album a year since the indictments and has a new single, “Hair Braider,” on the pop charts. In addition, he has continued to make music suffused with sexually explicit themes, and his fans don’t seem to mind. On the contrary, they continue to buy his records -- and his concerts sell out.


“His music is just so compelling to his audience that they’re not hung up on” the sex charges, said Marv Dyson, former president and general manager of WGCI-FM, the powerhouse Chicago R&B station that broke numerous Kelly hits over the years. “You know how forgiving people are nowadays.”

Indeed, after some initial reservations about how the sex charges would be received by the public, radio programmers have continued to play Kelly’s music. They say Kelly has continued to release music their listeners want to hear.

“If the song is great and people want to hear it, we’re going to play it regardless of what’s going on in his personal life,” said Erik Bradley, music director of Chicago top 40 station WBBM-FM (96.3).

No matter what happens at the trial, said Billboard magazine’s R&B editor Gail Mitchell, “R. Kelly’s going to be OK just because his writing and producing talent have remained consistent. I don’t think he’s missed any steps in terms of bottoming out.”

Alan Light, former editor of Vibe and Spin magazines, said Kelly’s work ethic has served to insulate him from a debilitating career slide.

“There was no retreat,” Light said. “There was no hiding from anything. He just kept his head down and kept doing his work. I can’t really think of anybody in these kinds of scandals [who has acted that way]. Their first impulse is to hide.”


Robert Kelly grew up on the South Side of Chicago. While in his teens, he brought a portable keyboard to elevated train stops and sang for tips.

He was signed to a record deal based on a performance at a backyard barbecue, and he was an instant success with a style that combined hip-hop’s thuggish street pose with R&B’s pleading vocals in a way that appealed to millions of young listeners.

“It’s no secret sex sells,” Kelly told the Chicago Tribune in a 1994 interview. “If you go to a movie and there’s no sex scene, it’s not a good movie. In every one of James Bond’s movies he had a fine girl. Same with every hero.”

Kelly’s 1993 album, “12 Play,” sold 8 million copies, and soon he was among pop’s most successful quadruple-threat artists: singer, songwriter, producer and performer. He helped launch the career of R&B singer Aaliyah (he also married the then-15-year-old in secrecy, only to have the marriage annulled soon after) and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Kirk Franklin and Sean “Diddy” Combs, among others. His self-empowerment ballad “I Believe I Can Fly,” featured in the Michael Jordan movie “Space Jam,” crossed him over to a huge mainstream audience.

Some of Kelly’s explicit ballads brimmed with dark undercurrents, and the conflict between sexuality and spirituality was central to his 1998 album, “R.” He wrestled with personal demons on tracks such as “When a Woman’s Fed Up” and “Suicide.”

During a Chicago concert by gospel singer Kirk Franklin in 1997, Kelly strolled onstage and obliquely addressed some of his private turmoil: “It amazes me when I look back eight months ago -- cars, women, money, the media. I had everyone’s attention,” he said. “Some may think it’s a gimmick, but I tell you, here stands a broken man. Every day I seem to be falling in love with the Lord. I’ve come to find out that whatever it is you want, it’s in the Lord.”


Though the singer didn’t mention it at the time, he was dogged by rumors of improper sexual activities. Civil proceedings followed over the years. At least three women filed lawsuits stating they had sex with him before turning 17. A fourth reached an out-of-court settlement with the singer.

When the child-pornography charges were pressed, Kelly’s career briefly stalled. A 2002 album, “Loveland,” was scrapped and a joint album with hip-hop kingpin Jay-Z, “The Best of Both Worlds,” flopped.

But his 2003 release, “Chocolate Factory,” sold 2 million copies and flaunted Kelly’s reputation as a sex freak. The first single, “Ignition,” strung together transparent sexual metaphors (“Let me stick my key in your ignition, babe”), and it rose to No. 2 on the R&B charts and sold 1 million copies.

On the rest of the album, the disconnect between Kelly’s lyrics and his sordid legal troubles verged on the preposterous.

“Anything you want, you just come to daddy,” Kelly purred in the album’s opening seconds.

“In the midst of this fame my life is like a buffet: Quick to drink, quick to smoke, quick to fornicate,” he fessed up on “Apologies of a Thug.”

This pattern continued on subsequent albums, with Kelly becoming even bolder in his sexual come-ons, with occasional attacks on his critics. The exception was his 2004 release, “Happy People”/”U Saved Me,” split between ebullient up-tempo tracks and gospel songs in the tradition of “I Believe I Can Fly.” He even broke into sobs as he addressed God, echoing his onstage confession with Franklin seven years earlier: “After I’ve been so bad, how did you manage to love me?”


Skeptical listeners might’ve heard a disingenuous pose, but more than 3 million buyers made the double-CD one of Kelly’s biggest commercial successes.

In 2005-06, with the implausible, 22-part video “Trapped in the Closet,” he turned his reputation for outlandish sexual escapades into an absurdist soap opera. This was comic-book sexuality, so over the top it verged on a joke.

If anything, the charges against him appeared to embolden Kelly to test how far he could push his sexually explicit material. Nobody ever accused Kelly of being particularly deep or profound as a lyricist. But his knack for wrapping his between-the-sheets obsessions in sing-songy melodies and dramatic rhythms had made him the most successful R&B performer of the last decade.

“I don’t know that the trial is going to make a difference” in Kelly’s career, said Billboard’s Mitchell. “For whatever reason, people are able to divorce” the artist from allegations about his private life. He has a sixth sense in terms of what’s hot.”

What’s more, Kelly is a prolific songwriter and has at least three unreleased albums in his archive. Even a conviction and a prison term might not be able to slow the tide of new material.

Chicago Tribune reporter Mark Caro contributed to this report.