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The R. Kelly Problem

He’s a musical genius—and he’s been accused of some awful things. Is it okay to listen to him?

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R. Kelly whirls around, straining to look out his car’s rear window. “You see that?” asks the R&B star, sitting in the middle row of a black SUV cruising down Manhattan’s West Side. On this sparkling afternoon in early fall, he’s just noticed a young woman driving a red sedan one lane over. “Damn,” says Kelly, as the smoke from his cigar curls along his giant gold watch and up past his diamond earring. “Uhm-hmm,” says a bearded assistant in a baseball cap from the backseat. This man’s job, as best I can tell, is to light his boss’s cigar and carry around a small duffel bag. The SUV pulls even with the woman’s car, and Kelly, on his way to a Chelsea recording studio, goes quiet, staring at the woman as she looks straight ahead.

Our driver changes lanes. Kelly grimaces, as if seeing an attractive woman in a passing car and not being able to do anything about it hurts. “New York got a lotta pretty girls,” he says. His assistant gives a sleepy nod.

The SUV pulls in front of the studio. We’re here to listen to tracks from next month’s The Buffet, the 13th album of Kelly’s massively successful, extremely controversial career, and the first one since allegations of his past sexual misconduct resurfaced online, causing many to argue that Kelly is both a predator overdue for punishment and a walking moral dilemma.

We step into an elevator. As it rises, Kelly, tall and wearing patterned jeans, sunglasses, and a baggy gray hoodie that mostly hides his slight middle-aged paunch, points his cigar at me. “You gonna be asking me all these things,” he says. “So let me ask you something first: What do you call a black man who flies an airplane?”

I don’t know.

“You call him a pilot,” says Kelly. “What’s wrong with you?” He laughs. “Gotta keep you off balance,” he says. “Gotta set the tone.”

So let’s do that. Here are some key things to know about R. Kelly. His first name is Robert, he’s 48 years old, and he’s inarguably the biggest male R&B singer since Marvin Gaye. Probably the most talented and sexually explicit, too. He grew up poor and functionally ­illiterate—owing to dyslexia—on Chicago’s South Side, raised mostly by his mother. In his memoir, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, he wrote about being sexually abused as a child by a woman from the neighborhood. Around the same time, boarders in his family’s house repeatedly made him take photos of them having sex. When he was 8, he watched helplessly as his first love, Lulu, drowned after bullies pushed her into a creek. At 11, he was shot by thieves trying to steal his bike. The bullet is still in his shoulder.

Kelly was musical from as far back as he can remember, and he began his career on the streets, singing for money in his clear, gorgeous tenor. In 1991, he joined a New Jack Swing group, Public Announcement, and went solo soon after. His debut, 12 Play (as opposed, the logic goes, to a less capable lover’s foreplay), was released in 1993. Since then, Kelly has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 34 million albums. He’s been nominated for 25 Grammy Awards and won three. In 2010, Billboard named Kelly the No. 1 R&B and hip-hop artist of the last quarter-­century. In addition to his own batch of 33 sinuous, perfectly arranged top-20 R&B hit singles, and another 17 that achieved the same designation on the pop “Hot 100,” Kelly has collaborated on smashes with Céline Dion and Michael Jackson. Pitchfork deemed his irresistible “Ignition (Remix)” the 19th-best track of the aughts. He was largely responsible for introducing Aaliyah, Drake’s emotional lodestar, to the world. Even Jim DeRogatis, the former Chicago Sun-Times reporter and pop critic, who has done more than anyone else to spread the word on Kelly’s alleged unlawful sexual behavior, admits: “The man is a musical genius.”

That’s the music. There’s also this: a long list of allegations that Kelly has used his money and power to have sex with minors. In 1994, when Kelly was 27 and Aaliyah was 15, the two were married under a falsified document that stated she was 18. The marriage was quickly annulled and Kelly, who produced Aaliyah’s debut album—called Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number—hasn’t said much about it since, out of, he says, respect for the late singer’s family. (Aaliyah had signed an agreement requiring her to stay silent about the brief marriage.) In 1996, Kelly was sued for damages by a woman alleging the two began a sexual relationship when she was 15. Kelly settled out of court. In 2001, a similar lawsuit with a similar result. The next year, he was indicted on 21 counts of making child pornography after police came into possession of a video depicting a man resembling Kelly having sex with a young woman. Also in 2002, another lawsuit, this one from a woman claiming both that Kelly impregnated her while she was underage and that one of his associates took her to get an abortion. Kelly settled. That same year, a woman sued Kelly for filming, without her knowledge, the two having sex. Kelly settled. It goes on: at least a half-dozen more lawsuits, followed by settlements, followed by nondisclosure agreements. (There are also reportedly a handful of instances in which Kelly has agreed to payments before lawsuits were even filed. Presumably these, too, involve NDAs.)


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