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The R. Kelly Problem

The engineer clicks a mouse, and Kelly’s insistently seductive voice fills the room. “My lyrics got a big dick / And I just fucked the shit out of you all.” Kelly looks at me, tilts his head, and puts his hands out in Whaddaya think? fashion.

most of kelly’s music falls into one of two categories: wholesome, inspirational songs about salvation and God, and filthy ones about freaky sex that often employ imaginatively silly metaphors—cooking (“In the Kitchen”), mountain climbing (“Echo”), space exploration (“Sex Planet”)—for the act of coitus. But the latter outweighs the former by a wide margin: For every “Heaven, I Need a Hug,” a handful of “I Like the Crotch on You,” and a heap of “Feelin’ on Yo’ Booty” for every dash of “U Saved Me.” He doesn’t release the clean stuff under one name and the dirty stuff under another, the way some artists might. It’s all part of the same complicated persona, and each part of his catalogue informs the other: Listen to enough dirty songs, and a totally clean one like “It’s Your Birthday,” for example, might trick you into anticipating a punch line that never comes. (He brought a birthday gift for you, but it’s not his penis, surprisingly.) There’s also Kelly’s 33-parts-and-counting rap opera Trapped in the Closet—whose narrative follows Kelly’s character, Sylvester, through a twisted series of events involving cuckolding, a surly dwarf, and a stuttering pimp—which exists in its own wondrous category.

The music on The Buffet doesn’t much resemble the tenser, more emotionally conflicted songs of current R&B hit-makers like the Weeknd, Frank Ocean, or Miguel—all of whom have, let’s say, a more subdued vision of how two people might interact with the lights down low. Kelly isn’t ultrakeen on his younger competition. “R&B should be making love,” he says, stroking his freshly trimmed beard. “It should be sex with a little comical feeling; all that shit when you macking to a girl so you can get with her.” In other words, R&B is exactly what The Buffet sounds like. Kelly performs beside me as the songs play—cuing imaginary musicians, pumping his fist, mouthing the lyrics, raising his hands to the heavens. When we get to a sex song that uses a marching band as a metaphor, Kelly sings, “Blow me like a tuba!” and does it with such aplomb that I can’t help but laugh, and he smiles, and it’s awkward. Because this moment makes plain the conundrum of R. Kelly: How do you—how do I—listen to his songs, these ingeniously produced, meticulously arranged, incredibly sung songs, after you know what he’s been accused of?

“i don’t think about what people say R. Kelly did do or he didn’t do,” says Charisse, a 38-year-old EMT in a red leather jacket. We’re standing outside Barclays Center in Brooklyn in late September. R. Kelly is playing here tonight, and in a few minutes he’ll deliver a lewd and wildly entertaining show. “He don’t do anything lots of other men don’t do,” Charisse continues. “But because it’s R. Kelly, I’m supposed to be mad about it? There’s a lot of fast girls out there looking for a come-up.” She shrugs. “That’s reality.”

Tia, 34 and pregnant, is here too. She works in wealth management, and her husband is home with their young daughter. “The media overhypes everything,” she says. “If he was found guilty in court, that’s a different thing. But there’s life and there’s music, and I can separate the two.” Her husband can’t. “He refuses to listen to R. Kelly,” she says.

A 40-something man who’s been listening in and who won’t give his name comes up to me and says, “Innocent until proven guilty. This is America,” and walks away.

Kenny is a 33-year-old real-estate agent whose girlfriend bought him R. Kelly tickets for his birthday. He was unaware of any allegations. “I’ve never heard any of that stuff,” he says. “So I guess it doesn’t bother me.”

Of course, R. Kelly has heard that stuff, though at the studio he answers my questions only in roundabout ways. “I’m going to always have the gift along with the curse,” he says, after we’ve finished listening to his album. “I feel like I got a million people hating me, I’ve got maybe 8 million loving me. So I’ve got 9 million talking about me, and in a strange, magical way, it keeps me in the game.”

In 2014, Slate asked, “Why Does Alleged Sexual Predator R. Kelly Still Have a Career?” The year before, the Village Voice ran a conversation with DeRogatis in which he recapped, in wrenching detail, the allegations against Kelly. Online, the piece linked to nearly ten years’ worth of disturbing Sun-Times stories and police reports.