On his latest release, Double Up, R. Kelly, the self-proclaimed "King of R&B," is quick to play the persecuted artist. The leadoff track, "The Champ," finds Kelly alluding to his pending child-pornography trial in his own colorful way: "Some would like to see me [in a] ball and chain/But I'm a child of God/So my destiny's ordained/Undisputed is the title I claim/'Bout to shoot the world up with this lyrical cocaine."
Admittedly, with his legal troubles, pending divorce, and the sheer amount of derision heaped upon his absurd, epic hip-hopera "Trapped in the Closet," the pity party is not unexpected. However, his sales don't seem to be affected by the accusations of pedophilia (2005's TP-3: Reloaded went double platinum) and, as ridiculed as "Trapped" was, it sure got a lot of people talking about him. Hell, it even received one of the highest accolades in popular music: a "Weird Al" parody, "Trapped in the Drive-Thru." As much as any celebrity, the Quiet Storm bringer should know the adage about how there's no such thing as bad publicity as long as your name gets spelled right, especially when it's as easy to spell as "R. Kelly."
Though Kelly claims to have "been through hell" and "lived in the belly of the beast," his marketability seems to be intact. Double Up debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart its first week. One reason to explain his appeal is that he is undeniably a funny man. It seems that critics and hipsters who just discovered R. Kelly through the "Trapped in the Closet" video think that the joke is on him, that it's all unintentional comedy. Do they really think that Kelly wasn't aiming for the funny bone when he included a midget crapping his drawers in a "Trapped" episode? Or that he wasn't trying to get a laugh out of the lines "Put you on the counter by the buttered rolls/Hands on the table, on your tippy toes/We'll be making love like the restaurant was closed," from the foodie-friendly sex ode "In the Kitchen"? A TV promotional video recently featured him sensuously eating a large chocolate-chip cookie, wondering if his gluttony would turn him into "R. Belly."
Fans expecting more of his hilarious, admittedly unsophisticated sex puns will find much to like on Double Up. On "The Zoo," Kelly faithfully delivers, "Girl, I got you so wet/It's like a rain forest/Like Jurassic Park/Except I'm your sexasaurus" right before a chorus of unmistakably chimp-like sounds — "Oooh, oooh, ooh/Ahh, ahh, ahh." "Sweet Tooth" offers up the saccharine gem "All up in your middle/Oooh, it tastes just like Skittles." Kelly is happy to play the role of the randy ass-tronaut on "Sex Planet," letting loose with "Girl I promise this will be painless (painless)/We'll take a trip to planet Uranus (anus)." Try and parody that, "Weird Al." To these ears, Kelly's silliness is more suitable for bedroom talk than the grand, lyrical proclamations that are standard for quiet storm songs.
If R. Kelly was nothing more than a sexed-up jester, he wouldn't merit the attention or the sales numbers. The real draw here is that Kelly is — how do you say? — a complicated man. Though he is more than happy to portray himself as a carousing Casanova, he's not afraid to bare his vulnerabilities. On "Leave Your Name," right after the very catchy, straightforward party anthem "Get Dirty," Kelly starts to question his own alcohol dependence. On what is ostensibly the world's longest outgoing answering-machine message, he confides, "Sleeping while the club is crunk/Don't make no sense to be that drunk/Arguing through the night/Pushing on people and starting fights/I was fucked up/I confess/People saying Kells is a hot mess." With Kelly's patented smooth delivery, it's the sexiest cry for help ever.
"Real Talk" is an unexpectedly intense depiction of a relationship's last gasp. Near the end of the argument, he angrily croons, "I wish you would burn my motherfucking clothes/With your trifling ass," before calling for "Milton," presumably his chauffeur, to drive him home. Imagine all of the marital vitriol of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? compressed into an urban, contemporary slow jam.
"Rise Up," Kelly's timely tribute to the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre, is a well-intentioned, well-crafted song. The sincerity might seem incongruous after a stream of humorous, erotic ditties, but with R. Kelly, it's just another wrinkle in his satin sheets.
Just as his erotic allegories continue the tradition of dirty blues, Kelly's flair for melodrama is a direct descendant of the soap-opera themes of Southern soul music. On "Best Friend," Kelly discovers that his lady is getting with his pal while he's doing time in the joint. It's not hard to imagine a chitlin-circuit stalwart like Bobby Rush ruminating on the same theme. Usher and R. Kelly discover that R&B star status isn't the only thing they have in common on "Same Girl." It is very reminiscent of the tragicomic soul song "He Kept on Talking," penned by Swamp Dogg. Of course, amid the puns, confessions, and relationship drama, Kelly offers plenty of tuneful, club-ready tracks. The first single, "I'm a Flirt," is already, deservedly, omnipresent on the airwaves. It's this combination of various elements that results in Double Up being one of the most enjoyable records released this year.