The Long, Sleazy Trail of R. Kelly's Icky Collaborations
One of the many sad and unsavory elements of R. Kelly’s career is that he’s not just one of the most successful R&B performers of the last century: he’s also an extraordinarily successful songwriter and producer for other artists. These include Aaliyah, of course and also Sparkle, the R&B singer whose niece figured prominently in the notorious sex tape child pornography trial that should have completely destroyed the singer’s career but proved little more than a bump in the road.
It’s easy to see why these ambitious, unknown R&B singers would be eager to work with R. Kelly at the beginning of his career, before his predilection for filming himself having degrading sex with underaged women became the music industry’s ugliest, worst kept secret. Kelly was a hitmaker, a star-maker, a big deal in the world of Hip Hop and R&B. A collaboration with him could make the difference between being a nobody and being a pop star.
It’s a little more perplexing as to why rappers and singers who were already established, even massive superstars, would collaborate with Kelly after all of his skeletons came tumbling very visibly out of the closet.
I’m particularly fascinated by the fact that Jay-Z, one of the most careful, cautious and deliberate figures in pop music, not only collaborated with Kelly despite everything we knew even then, but made multiple collaborative albums with the controversial Chicago hit-maker, sex cult leader and real-life super-villain despite clearly despising the man.
In “Guilty Until Proven Innocent”, a single that preceded 2002’s ironically named The Best of Both Worlds and 2004’s Unfinished Business, Kelly creepily but successfully linked Jay-Z’s legal troubles for allegedly stabbing a former business partner and his own legal problems when he sang, “You can't touch me, no you can't touch me/Jigga, Kelly, not guilty/Try to charge me but I'm not guilty.”
Kelly wasn’t just making a single by a popular rapper more commercial and radio-friendly: he was also casually implicating Jay-Z in his own crimes by saying that they’re united in their innocence, in being powerful, famous black men subjected to unjust prosecution by a racist society that cannot stand to see African-American icons of wealth and power succeed. If they’re both innocent, as Kelly proclaims, then it would seem to follow that their guilt would be connected as well.
Looking back, there’s something enormously calculating and sinister about the way Kelly used the songs that he wrote and produced and performed with other artists to embed himself so deeply and incontrovertibly into the fabric of American music and American pop culture that if he were to fall, and fall hard as a result of his horrific sex crimes, then an enormous cross-section of the music industry would be implicated in his transgressions.
Kelly didn’t just write and perform songs with other artists: he trafficked in blatant lifestyle porn, in the idea that Kelly and whatever rapper he was doing a song with weren’t just musical collaborators but friends swaggering into the VIP section of the club together with a bottle of champagne in each hand looking for sexy women to take home.
Kelly’s collaborations relentlessly highlighted the ostensible similarities between his own life and career and the life and career of whoever he was working with. Like many crazed egomaniacs, Kelly loves to refer to himself in the third person. That makes sense from a branding perspective but it also creates an almost subliminal association in the public’s mind between Kelly and his collaborators.
Even before they did two albums together, and attempted very unsuccessfully do a joint tour that ended prematurely in lawsuits and acrimony, Kelly was conditioning the public to link his name with Jay-Z’s name and the phrase “not guilty.”
The creepy implication of the R. Kelly’s collaborations were that your boy Kells was popping bottles at the club with your favorite rapper or R&B singer, doing the same kinds of things in the same kinds of contexts. In actuality, Kelly was pursuing victims at the McDonald’s by the local Junior High and the rapper he was lending his hit making expertise to was far the hell away, trying hard not to think about what that creep R. Kelly was up to at the moment.
Never has the implication that Kelly and whoever he’s collaborating with are simpatico figures with simpatico tastes and predilections been more comically, unfortunately blatant than in R. Kelly’s hit 2007 collaboration with Usher, “Same Girl.”
The song’s premise is that Kelly and Usher are unwittingly pursuing the same woman. Once they realize they’ve both been bamboozled by the same heartless harlot they join forces to turn the table on this awful woman manipulating these blameless romantics who just want to find a good girl.
Bear in mind that “Same Girl” was released long after the sex tape trial, when it should have been achingly apparent just what kind of girl Kelly was interested in sexually: a powerless thirteen or fourteen year old who could be controlled and abused, degraded, starved, manipulated and filmed. But in 2007 Usher was perfectly willing to have the public think that he and Kelly had suspiciously similar taste in women when it meant another high-profile hit.
According to Time, following Kelly’s culture-wide cancellation post-Surviving R. Kelly, Chance the Rapper, Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Ciara and The Pussycat Dolls have removed their collaborations from streaming services out of an understandable desire to have as little to do with the reviled sex criminal as possible.
That’s a good start but that’s all it is: a start. By design, Kelly was all over Hip Hop and R&B, corrupting the genres with his malignant presence. It will probably be impossible to purge R. Kelly entirely from the genres he ruled for decades in the years ahead.
Hopefully musicians will be more cautious about who they choose to collaborate with in the future. Because sometimes all it takes is letting the wrong man write and produce your song, to spin the strangely commercial fantasy that you’re buddies and partners in crime ruling the VIP section in perfect tacky harmony to make you complicit on some level in the all too public crimes of a monster.
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