No previews this week, just reviews (probably)…assuming I allow myself time to write anything while I’m currently embroiled in the first season of Homeland. That’ll likely get a write-up at some point, I’d imagine – but for today, I turn the blog over to Scott Spinelli (website here, buy the book) for the third post in his White Suburban Kid Reviews Classic Hip-Hop Albums series. However, today’s a little bit different – there’s no album review. It’s more of a career retrospective, and it’s a look at R. Kelly. It’s also my favorite of the three posts in this series so far. Let’s check it out…
I wasn’t sure how I wanted to go about this. Frankly, I wasn’t even sure what the first step was.
Let’s go back a bit, shall we. First off, after taking down Doctor Dre and Shawn “Z” Carter, I knew I wanted to go in a slightly different direction for part three. That direction, as fate would have it, was R. Kelly*.
To me, there’s more to the R. Kelly story than simply one album. It’s a story, not just a review. And with that in mind, I found it hard to simply write one review about one of his albums and keep the scope to just that one album.
That all said, I could’ve done it in parts. A part one (the rise) and part two (the fall) for Mr. Kelly, but I ultimately settled against the idea of a series having a series within it.
So, buckle up, because we’re doing it all in one.
The Rise of Robert Sylvester Kelly
Robert had already released three albums (the seminal 12 Play**, the creatively titled/beginning of outrageously sexualized style R. Kelly, and the personally inaccurate, though eerily foreshadowing Born Into the 90s) by the time 1998 rolled around.
However, it would be “R.” that would be the beginning of his true peak as the R in R&B***. I’m not sure how many of you actually know about this album, because in telling a few friends of mine that I’d be featuring this next in my series, I was met with one or both of the following:
- You write a series? About what?
- R. Kelly had a double album?
So, with that confusion in mind, here are a few other facts about that album:
- It was, in fact, a double album, which is incredibly bold and rare. Most artists don’t attempt double albums because they either can’t do it, are afraid of doing it, or know that it won’t work.
- It was the first time in his career that Robert let other people (in this case, the Trackmasters – who fell off the face of this planet around the turn of the Millennium) produce his records.
- It was also the first time (and the beginning of a trend, more on that in a moment) that an R. Kelly album was heavy with features.
- It set the record for longest list of personnel ever recorded on an album. Check it out.
- The biggest single from the CD (and arguably of Robert’s career) was “I Believe I Can Fly”.
That last one is particularly interesting because the single had been released literally two weeks after his previous album, two years prior. That song alone won him his only three Grammys. Three. On one song. Think about that for a second…OK, let’s keep moving.
I remember originally purchasing this CD from Blockbuster, which dates me in two ways. One, in the obvious way that any Blockbuster reference will, and two, harkening back to the days when they actually sold compact discs at Blockbuster. Anyway, in listening to this record again, I forgot about how much fun R&B was. A thought I couldn’t get out of my head while listening: “Man, I wish I had sex a lot in 1998, because it would’ve been great to do that to these songs.”****
I recently had a girl I was engaging in sexual intercourse with tell me, just as we were getting into it, that we should do it to music. I wanted to put on some old school R&B, basically this R. Kelly stuff—the stuff you’d joke about having sex to but never actually would. Except, I didn’t want it to be ironic. I wanted to literally pretend as if it was the late 90s. Sadly, she wasn’t into it (or old enough to remember R. Kelly as anything less than what he’s become).
Before we move on to the Fall, let’s pick a few great tracks from that album, shall we? The CD’s first track, “Home Alone” might be its best party song. “Half on a Baby” was actually a single (which shows you not only where we were, but where we’ve gone) that, shockingly, is enjoyable. “We Ride” is basically a vehicle for R. Kelly to sing the hook while Jay-Z, Cam’ron and Noreaga destroy each verse. You probably also remember “Did You Ever Think”, but the album version inexplicably doesn’t have Nas on it. That song, by the way, needs a question mark in its title and does not have a chorus that follows with “…that you would urinate on a girl, get videotaped doing it and get away with it?”. Lastly, I’d recommend “Money Make the World Go Round” with Nas. No joke there, that’s just a good old school R&B song.
The Fall of Robert Sylvester Kelly
It didn’t happen right away. You could lazily look at things and point to his, shall we say, sexual indiscretions with underage girls and say that it all came apart then. That’s not 100% true. That was the start of things, but keep in mind, that nonsense came out in early 2002 and he went on to release some of his most successful albums after that point.
No, friends, it all came apart between 2004 and 2008. Two specific events can be pointed to:
First, he pissed off Jay-Z (an ironic turn of phrase), which is a huge no-no in the game (ask Chris Brown or Beanie Sigel about that).
Second, this is America, so sh*t (another ironic turn of phrase, I realize) didn’t hit the fan until the verdict on his case came down in ’08. He was, somehow (skip to 1:51), acquitted on all charges. Take a look at his albums from that point on. Untitled, Love Letter and Write Me Back had all of one rapper featured (some clown named OJ Da Juiceman. Seriously). Point of reference: Double Up had eight rappers on it. So, there you go.
That part is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a generally held opinion in contemporary American society that you can do basically anything (drive drunk, cheat on your wife or sport, murder or maim someone, etc.) and you can be forgiven in the right circumstances. F*ck around with kids in a sexually deviant way? As Biggie once said, “Ain’t no comin’ back from that.”
The real issue was that he (and Jay-Z, honestly) screwed the pooch on what should have been a no-doubt-about-it home run. Of course, there’s the accusations that R. Kelly was basically a whiny, unprofessional bitch (made by Jay-Z and his camp) during their tour, but honestly, everything was screwed up long before then.
There was no reason for The Best of Both Worlds to be anything less than superb… because, frankly it was what the album said it was. Except, it didn’t come out that way. The verses sounded repetitive, the production was spotty at best (tracks like “Take You Home” were the exception, not the rule), and it had a feeling like it was all done over email. A feeling, mind you, that was actually brought to the forefront when the two released Unfinished Business, one of the more blatant pieces of lazy trash you’ll ever see. You know when an artist will re-release his album with a few more remixes and call it something like Title, Reloaded, and try to pass that off as a whole new album? This was worse than that. Unfinished Business succeeded where Best of Both Worlds did not, in that it was exactly what the title promised.
Made up of songs and bits and cuts that didn’t make the first album, Unfinished Business was almost literally slapped together in a studio. It was as bad as it sounds.
Conclusion: An Alternate Ending
Sometimes, I like to imagine what would have happened had each of these men lived the other’s life, if things didn’t play out quite as they did in real life.
Jay-Z attempts to write and star in a 15-part, off-broadway hip-hopera about a confusing web of relationships and homosexual priests. His on-again, off-again girlfriend Beyonce dumps him, unable to be seen with such a loser. More than ever, coming off the critical and commercial bombs of his play(s) and most recent album (an untitled solo project attempting to refashion him as a sort of throwback to Motown), he needs Kanye West to reinvigorate his life/career. Mr. West, uninterested in affiliating himself with such a pathetic has-been, turns him down, ending his career, and instead, Kanye pairs with Nas, Jay’s one-time-enemy.
R. Kelly, meanwhile, continues his string of commercially viable albums and singles, each one churning out at least one or two club bangers. As his fame escalates and he moves from lone R&B crooner to icon, he does songs with everyone from Justin Timberlake to Linkin Park and John Mayer. People forget that he once sang about having sex with basically any woman in any position on any planet in this galaxy and instead focus on his new success and girlfriend (the newly single, Beyonce Knowles). He befriends a junior senator from Illinois and ultimately cozies up to him enough to gain clout to buy a piece of the New York Knicks and sing the National Anthem at the presidential inauguration.
*Fate, in this and basically all instances as relates to this series, is also known as Spotify. I’ll be honest, I originally couldn’t fathom the point of such a program. Now, I find myself using it basically every day. Cap tip to you, dude that Justin Timberlake played in the Facebook Movie (I’m aware of both his name and that the movie isn’t called that).
(Editor’s note: Is this going to give me an excuse to post the trailer from the best movie released in the past five years? You bet it is!)
**Am I the only one who had no idea that the TP of TP-2.com and TP.3 Reloaded stood for Twelve Play? I can’t be.
***For a guy who birthed the totally ridiculous/albeit original “Trapped in the Closet” series (side note within the side note: I could do a whole post on just those, but we move on), the names of his albums show an impressive lack of creativity. Two albums were his name, one was untitled, and three were based off the same name.
****For the record, I was 11 when it came out.
Thanks to Scott – great stuff as always. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch Homeland.