Sharp Darts: The Chameleon | Music Column | Chicago Reader

Sharp Darts: The Chameleon 

R. Kelly's figured out how to please most of the people most of the time.

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Call him Legion, for he is many. And call him the rightful heir to Prince's place on the pop charts, because he's that too. Pretenders to Prince's throne have made better music, or at least better-respected music, than R. Kelly, but none has projected anything like His Purple Majesty's multilayered fruitcake of a persona, which is as much a part of his appeal as his skills. On that count, Kells may even have Prince beat.

Prince can turn on a dime from nightclub satyr to mournful penitent to squealing guitar god, and that's earned him a fan base that crosses all kinds of musical and social divides. R. Kelly seems to have dozens of personalities, each crafted to target a well-defined demographic, and he rarely misses the mark. He's an NC-17 crooner for the smooth R & B set, a Hallmark balladeer whose 1996 hit "I Believe I Can Fly" is still a staple at high school graduations, and an open-eared experimenter with a weakness for winkingly self-referential remixes that postmodernists love. He writes old-school stepping songs strictly for the grown and sexy, then plays the thug and kicks it in the VIP with a bunch of radio gangstas. Of course, he's also functionally illiterate and might be a sex criminal--though I'm sure we'll all grow old waiting for an actual verdict on that one. Altogether he's the closest thing we've got right now to a personification of the pop-music business.

Kelly codified his multifarious approach to the album format with TP-2.com in 2000. Already established as a post-New Jack Swing leading man, he introduced a new role--basically, the rapper who doesn't rap. Dripping with diamonds and fur, pouring champagne, this new R. Kelly was more likely to duet with Fat Joe than Celine Dion. TP-2.com was his first album to drop after MP3s and file sharing became widespread, so fans could cherry-pick tracks from the persona they preferred.

Kelly went on to solidify his hip-hop credentials, collaborating with Jay-Z for two albums, appearing on high-profile singles by the likes of Young Jeezy and Ja Rule, and even stepping outside radio rap to fold dancehall reggae and crunk into his sound. He didn't stop there, either: he blew out his story-based lyrics to novella length with 2005's batshit soap opera "Trapped in the Closet" and developed an almost obsessively recursive songwriting style, not just quoting himself but writing choruses that announced when a track was a remix. In this decade he's only had a couple singles approach the success of "I Believe I Can Fly," but his own releases and his steady schedule of cameos have kept him on the charts and arguably increased his currency in the industry, despite the canceled tours and child-porn allegations. His music is an essential element of DJ sets at hip-hop clubs and hipster dance parties alike, thanks to his knack for churning out frighteningly catchy hooks--I've had the remix to "Ignition" stuck in my head for entire days--and his ear for novelty. If you don't like an R. Kelly single, there's another one in a different style coming right up.

If the past seven years of Kelly's career have been like one long test-marketing campaign, then Double Up (Jive), which came out last week, is the focus-grouped result. Though he's cooled it with the experimentation--there's nothing here as wild as, say, the bhangra-flavored 2003 cut "Thoia Thoing"--he's developed a masterful command of his strongest sounds, the ones rooted in hip-hop, soul, pop, and R & B.

The album opens with "The Champ," less an actual song than the theme that'd be playing over the opening credits of "Double Up: The Movie." Over a driving synth-symphonic backup by Dirty South producers the Runners, Kelly runs through a list of familiar complaints--the haters trying to keep him down, the demons he's always fighting to overcome, the "bitches" who are "so lame"--and shouts out the hood as his inspiration and one true love. (The resemblance to "King Back," which opens T.I.'s 2006 smash King, is probably not coincidental.) He promptly flips the mood with "Double Up," updating Dr. Dre's G-funk sound for a slithering ode to three-way sex, complete with a Snoop Dogg cameo. Then it's back to the Dirty South for back-to-back tracks of overblown analog synth with guest turns by Nelly and Chamillionaire. They're both good songs--I'm sure clubgoers will go along when "Get Dirty" asks them to do just that--but it's strange to see Kelly so obviously aping a popular style instead of devising his own hybrid.

Double Up isn't just potential crossover singles for the rap crowd. The skit-song "Leave Your Name" is a faux voice-mail greeting that rattles off hedonistic misadventures ("Goin' to them afterparties / Throwin' up and carrying on") over a satiny piano jam. The reggae-tinged R & B smooth-out "Freaky in the Club," which has more in common with late-70s soul than current hip-hop, is a perfectly wrapped gift for Kelly's fans in the higher age brackets. And there's even one of his trademark inspiration jams: "Rise Up," a memorial to the Virginia Tech victims.

What Kelly does best these days, though, is pop R & B with bubbling, syncopated beats and infectiously simple major-key melodies--see the "Ignition" remix and "Fiesta." The first song in that mode, "I'm a Flirt," doesn't turn up till almost halfway through Double Up, but its position in the track sequence doesn't mean much--it's already been everywhere for months. Kelly wrote "Flirt" for Bow Wow and sang the hook on that version, then released his own as an advance single, which caused some confusion on the charts when Billboard decided to combine them under one listing. For a guy who's supposedly so unintelligent (and his lyrics are kinda dumb as hell), Kells understands the importance of the single probably better than anyone else in the game. And he's a natural marketing genius: selling the same track three times to hundreds of thousands of people is undeniably crass but utterly impressive.

Industry pundits predict that album sales will continue to slump and that labels will make their money with singles and, even more important, with ringtones, which generally sell for two to four times as much. And R. Kelly's up on that too. Songs like "I'm a Flirt" sound written to be ringtones, and now he's pushing actual ringtones in his lyrics. On Double Up's other advance single, the Usher duet "Same Girl," one of the details that helps the two crooners figure out they're unwittingly sharing a lady is her custom ringer. And there's a bonus track called "Ringtone," which gives props in its chorus to the people out there with "Kells on their ringtone" and climaxes with a rare rap where Kelly basically says that if you buy his ringtones it means you're a baller, a player, and a "real nigga." I'm sure if it were possible to outfit a song with a clickable link to a download site, he would've done that too.

Kelly obviously relishes his role as a marketer. With his eagerness to put on different personas to sell the most music to the most people, he sorta reminds me of one of those car salesmen who'll mimic your accent and body language when they're trying to talk you into an upgrade. And the commercial side of his work seems to genuinely inspire him: for all its shamelessness, "Ringtone" is one of Double Up's most exciting tracks, pressing sparse, Neptunes-esque drums against a Houston-style screwed vocal sample and an unexpected gospel choir. Ironically, it's too minimalist and bass heavy to work well as an actual ringtone--I'll probably end up downloading one of the album's other tracks for my phone. R. Kelly songs may be first and foremost advertisements for R. Kelly, but being marketed to almost never sounds this good.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): R. Kelly.

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