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The R. Kelly Problem

Also in 2002, a video, delivered anonymously to DeRogatis’s mailbox, showed a man who looks an awful lot like R. Kelly having sex with a girl alleged to have been about 14 or 15 years old at the time. In the video, which was widely bootlegged, the man is seen urinating in the girl’s mouth. It took prosecutors six years to bring the case to trial. The girl in question refused to testify, and Kelly’s lawyers argued that, as in the 2006 comedy Little Man, in which CGI was used to transpose Marlon Wayans’s head onto a child actor’s body, someone could have faked the tape by digitally replacing another man’s face with Kelly’s. He was acquitted on all charges.

Despite all the allegations—and DeRogatis puts the total number of lawsuits in the dozens—Kelly has never gone to trial for, or even been charged with, statutory rape. Why not? Chicago attorney Susan E. Loggans, who won settlements for multiple Kelly accusers, explains that for the state to prosecute a statutory-rape charge, there needs to be a complaining witness, and there hasn’t been one. “People don’t trust the legal system,” she says. “Everybody wants to see if they can get out of it. You can be on the right side of a case and lose, and that’s devastating. It’s easier to be provided with money and not go through the trauma or risk of a trial.”

And yet. Kelly’s former manager Barry Hankerson once wrote a letter to Kelly’s lawyer in which he said their client needed to get help for his sexual compulsion toward underage girls. The husband of Kelly’s former publicist Regina Daniels told Los Angeles radio station KJLH that Kelly had “crossed a line” with the couple’s daughter. Kelly’s brother, Carey, told radio host Wendy Williams that he was asked to collect phone numbers of girls in the audience at R. Kelly shows even though “they looked underage.” Kelly’s former friend and personal assistant Demetrius Smith wrote a memoir, The Man Behind the Man, in which he wrote: “Underage girls had proven to be [Kelly’s] weakness. He was obsessed. Sickly addicted.”

For a brief period after his acquittal, Kelly, musically anyway, appeared cowed. Love Letter (2010) and Write Me Back (2012) were both chaste compared with most of his hits and musically humble, homages to classic soul. Divorce was presumably humbling, too. He and his wife, Andrea, who’d publicly supported her husband, divorced in 2009 after 13 years of marriage. The couple has a son, Robert; a daughter, Joann; and a third child, Jay, born Jaya, who announced last year on social media that he’s transitioning from female to male. “He’s a, I dunno what the name of it is,” Kelly tells me. “You love your kids no matter what.”

But in 2013, Kelly let loose. He duetted with Lady Gaga on her racy, unrepentant hit “Do What U Want,” and the two gave a truly bizarre performance at the American Music Awards in which he played the president and she played a secretary dry-humping in the Oval Office. Then he released his own volcanically dirty Black Panties album, featuring songs like “Crazy Sex” and “Marry the Pussy.” The record was like a dare to the world: After all that he’d been accused of, after avoiding conviction, could R. Kelly still get away with making sex-obsessed music?

at the chelsea studio, Kelly is seated at a desk behind the recording console, a track list and keyboard in front of him. He takes small drags from his cigar. His assistant, a publicist, and a manager sit shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder on a nearby couch. Kelly, who speaks softly and rarely looks my way when he responds to my questions, asks an engineer to cue up a track from the excellent The Buffet—one of 462 songs Kelly says he wrote for the album (13 made the final cut). “I have enough songs to put out six or seven albums a year if I wanted,” he says while fiddling with the track list. Despite his superhuman output, quality control is not a problem, he says, because “feedback comes to me through the people who work for me.” He admits that on a couple occasions, he’s been told that songs were duds, but he can’t recall which ones because “I’m so buried in all of the great songs that I’ve been fortunate to have out there.” (Kelly is playfully exaggerative on a broad number of topics: An avid pickup-basketball player, he tells me that his jump shot is accurate “to about half-court, so that I don’t have to drive to the hole and worry that someone hits my pretty face.”) The Buffet, Kelly says, has a little something for all of his fans—hence the title—and he “really does believe my music will play until Jesus comes back.”