Note: I originally had this up on my old long-abandoned music-themed blog “What Was Yours Is Everyone’s From Now On,” but I looking over it today, I loved this post (and the song it is about) so much I decided to re-post it here.
It probably bears mentioning that I kind of love R. Kelly. I would say “unabashedly,” except that I am a bit abashed. I was ambivalent until my exposure to “Trapped in the Closet,” which struck me as the work of an idiot savant…but not really. Here’s the thing about R. Kelly, he has perfected a kind of unaware awareness or perhaps I have that reversed. At some level I think he sees himself as a genius—just watch his commentary on “Trapped in the Closet,” if you don’t think so—but at the same time his seeming lack of filter, the straightforward earnest delivery of his lyrics suggest that there is no depth there, or rather you might say there is depth to that singular surface layer. Someone else used the Italian term “sprezzatura” (a kind of artful carelessness that is so effective it obscures even its own artfulness) which seems apt, but personally I think of R.Kelly as post-ironic.
It probably also bears mentioning that some folks are troubled by the idea of R. Kelly as a dope, someone who’s popularity among a certain hipster-set is based on the fact that he is unintentionally hilarious. And I agree that this is troubling. I think these folks conflate earnestness with the unintentiality of the humor, but I think that it is possible to sincerely enjoy R. Kelly both as music and for the campiness that suffuses his work.
This latest song is a perfect example. I find it impossible to believe that R, Kelly does not realize that the bizarre talking/crooning self-reflexive narrative songs can be funny. And yet, that humor—while often reinforced through his absurd metaphors—arises from the natural talk-y way people have of conversing or even speechifying and is not associated with song except as a manifestation of vamping. He makes the song feel like one long ad-lib in the tradition of a kind of testifying/singing in R&B and gospel. R. Kelly, however, brings it to a whole new level, making a traditional part of a song into the whole song itself—restructuring through sampling a fragment of a form repetitively. Exaggeration can be funny. I mean, John Coltrane exaggerated when he played that sax, and some of those violent blarts(!) and breathy broken tones encourage nothing less than laughter, measured in equal parts of joy and discomfort.
The expansiveness of Kelly’s diction—the way he inflates the melody with long words that normally defy musicality—is also funny, but ultimately I hear it as if he is risking being made fun of in order to be earnest. Furthermore, you can’t ignore the role Kelly’s hyper-specificity plays in making his songs work. Perhaps this is how he seems able to completely remove any doubt regarding a unity between the song’s speaker and his own persona, even when he is singing in the roles of others. In other words, R. Kelly’s talent is in his ability to perform an erasure at the moment of singing, sinking invisibly into R. Kelly the character and making us forget that there will always be a difference between the R. Kelly we hear and the R. Kelly who sings.
In this latest song then, when he directly addresses his fans and detractors, he is doing so as R. Kelly would be expected to do it. Listen to how well he does it. Ultimately it comes down to this: Listen to how well R. Kelly does R. Kelly.
The production is perfect and I love the little touches throughout, the finger snaps, the backing gospel-like chorus, the building piano, the pause and crumple of paper right before getting into the list of “serious issues” he has to talk/sing about, the “wooh-hoo-hoo” after singing “crying mad tears,” the subtle emotional breaks in his voice, the call backs as a verse closes on the refrain. R. Kelly’s voice is on point. Listen to how his voice slowly builds in a gospel flavor in the second verse, or the ad-libbed vocal filigree in the final chorus. It really does give me shivers.
And at the same time, he is singing “Tell them, Shut up!,” which seems stupid divorced of the context of his voice and the rest of the song. It is banal without the sincerity that R. Kelly’s performance lends it. Again, I am not saying he is sincere, but that the performance is… There is a subtle difference there. He can make me believe he believes it.
Post-ironic means not that he is devoid of irony, but rather since any potential irony remains in doubt, the form and content must be taken at face value. It is earnestness so well played that I think a lot of other popular music pales in comparison. A lot of popular music fails at obfuscating the fact that the performers are not faking it quite well enough to convince us that they really believe in the generalized platitudes of most popular songs.
Anyway, I am just really feeling this song.