He’s an odd bundle of contradictions, R Kelly: God-fearing yet downright filthy, lovelorn balladeer yet aggressive bump ‘n’ grind merchant, self-centred yet gregarious, humble but completely egocentric, weirdly avant-garde yet fiercely commercial.
It’s all of this that makes him one of the most interesting, and listenable, mainstream artists currently out there. Up there with Prince, in my opinion.
This, from his 2004 Happy People/U Saved Me album, is a reasonably good example of his ability to push things that little bit further. At heart, the song is a lost Kelly talking to his sister on the phone who recommends re-engaging with his faith to sort himself out. In fact, she knows someone at the church who can help him with this. And in order to make this work, Kelly creates what sounds like an actual three-way phone call.
Within all of this we have the usual God bollocks and the power of prayer and faith and all that nonsense. Stuff that normally leaves me cold. But here I find it all quite moving. The relationship between Kelly and his sister is very touching, and the singing – which occasionally verges on gospel – is superb. Voices that can really do things to you.
But what I find most impressive is Kelly’s attention to detail with the phonecall conceit. It would have been much easier to have just had them singing together in the same room. The message of the song would have still come across, the singing would have still been great. But I love that he took the trouble to make it work in this way.
The best bit, for me, is when his sister calls her friend, Kim. We hear the dial, we hear the phone ringing and we wait a while for someone to answer. And when they do, it’s not Kim. The person answering the phone has to go and look for her. If that’d been me I’d have just had Kim answer straight away: to save time, to get on with the story. But then I wouldn’t have subtly got across that this Kim – this church woman – lives with someone, is part of someone’s life, isn’t just a lonely church loony. It makes me smile every time I hear it.