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Christmas with R. Kelly

The pioneering R&B singer discusses the holidays, house music and ‘Trapped in the Closet’

Dec. 6, 2016
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Photos courtesy RCA Records

One of the defining R&B artists of the modern era, R. Kelly has covered a lot of ground over his career. That’s been especially true since the mid-’00s, when in the wake of legal issues and damning allegations he reinvented himself as a sort of ambassador of joy on soul-minded albums like 2004’s Happy People and 2010’s Love Letter while taking his ambitions to absurdist new extremes with his ongoing hip-hop opera, “Trapped in the Closet.” This year, the Chicago singer checked another item off his to-do list when he released his long-gestating Christmas album, 12 Days of Christmas. Ahead of his show Sunday, Dec. 11 at the Riverside Theater, Kelly spoke with the Shepherd Express about his writing process, his house album, the future of “Trapped in the Closet” and why he considers himself a “musical hospital.”

What inspired you to make a Christmas album? Is that something you’d wanted to do for a while?

Just the simple fact that Christmas is my favorite time of the year, just like most people. By me being musical and creative, I always felt like I wanted to do a Christmas album, but I never really sat down and focused and concentrated on it. I wanted it to be great when I did get to it. I’ve gotten a lot of hit songs under my belt, so I felt like, “OK, it’s time to focus on doing a Christmas album,” and hopefully one that’ll play every Christmas throughout the world, just like all of the other great Christmas songs that have come before.

That’s a tall order because there are so many new Christmas albums released every year, but so few new songs that become part of the classic American Christmas songbook. Do you think you’ve written any that reach that level?

You know, we’ll have to see. I never try to tell the future when it comes to things like that, because I think it’s very egotistical to think that I would have a song on this album that matches the Donny Hathaways and the Nat “King” Coles. I’m just trying to do my part, and add to my legacy when it comes to Christmas, and say, “Hey, you know, I not only did the ‘Bump and Grind’s and the ‘I Believe I Can Fly’s, but I also got a Christmas album out of the deal.” So I’m good with that.

All of these songs are originals. Did you ever consider making a covers album, or did you always intend on originals?

Well, I wanted to challenge myself. You know, I’m a writer. I’ve been writing all my life. I’ve written all different types of genres of songs, from gospel to “I Believe I Can Fly” to sexual songs, and I felt like, “Why can’t I write a Christmas album?” So I challenged myself to see if can do it, and, as always, I met myself right there and got it done.

That’s a lot of original material to write. How long does it take you to write an album like this?

Well I’ve been working on this Christmas album for years; little ideas here and there. It wasn’t like a regular album, where I just go in and say, “I’m going to take three or four months to write this album.” No. This took at least eight or nine years of writing ideas down or writing melodies down and putting them in the computer and storing them and saving them so when I got ready to do a Christmas album I would have a whole lot of ideas together, and I could go through and finish them. And that’s what I did for this 12 Nights of Christmas album.

Have you ever made an album like that before? I remember reading that you never wrote down anything when you recorded.

Right. I don’t write anything down, but I will record it. I’ll record my little ideas, my little mumble ideas, and then I’ll go back and turn those mumbles into lyrics somehow.

So you’re just always walking around with a little recorder then?

Well, it’s my phone now. But I used to have a… it went from an eight track, to a cassette, to a Razr phone to an iPhone. [Laughs]

I’m picturing you out at the club or dinner and stopping everything like, ‘Hold on, I gotta get this idea down!’

[Laughs] Man, it happens all the time, all through the day.

For the last decade or so, you’ve bounced back and forth between two kinds of albums—the sort of classic soul records and the more modern R&B albums. Is there a style that moves you more these days?

Not really, man. Music just moves me, period. I listen to all kinds of music all the time, from old school to new school. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just whatever mood I’m in at the moment.

When you put out Love Letter, I think you surprised a lot of people who didn’t know you were into that style of soul music.

Well, Love Letter was just a rub off of the Happy People album. You know, Happy People had that same type of music to it. I tried that style with “Step in The Name of Love,” and it went over really well for me, so of course I’m gonna decide to go back in that cookie jar and try to grab a few more of those [laughs]. That’s what the Love Letter was. “Step in The Name of Love” was a real feel-good song, and when they heard it they felt good. And when they heard “Happy People” they felt good. So, of course I decided to go in and do the Love Letter album—to capture that same feeling for people.

That’s something you don’t find much in modern R&B, that sense of overwhelming joy and happiness. It feels like some artists are afraid to put themselves out there in that way.

I was just getting ready to say that! A lot of artists, I do feel like they’re afraid to just, you know… well, some people would call it corny or soft. But if you have a mother, and you love your mother like I love my mother, or if you have a daughter and kids you love, like I love my kids, that’s where you take that and you channel that into your gift. Because you’ve got to know there’s a whole billion or trillion people around the world that have got that same feeling about their moms, or their dads or their kids. You’re going to touch those people. It’s not always about touching the thugs or the club. Sometimes it’s about touching the people who just go to work every day, and they’re cleaning up their houses and they want some music to make them feel good when they’re cleaning up. People are going through things. People go through things every day, so where is the song that plays that helps those people get through what they’re going through? Where’s that song at? It definitely ain’t in the club! The club is for the turn-ups. But I’m here to just be able to spread love in any way I can, almost like a musical hospital, you know? It depends on what you’re coming for and what’s wrong with you, but hopefully I got some sort of musical anecdote that will heal you. That’s pretty much how I look at my music.

A few years ago word got out that you were working on a house album. Is that still in the works?

I’m five songs deep into my house album, House Arrest. It’s a house album, simply because when I first started in music and would go to clubs, I was a house dancer. I used to dance to house music. I was the guy on the speaker with his shirt off dancing to nothing but house music, when I was 15, 16, 17, 18.  So house music is in me. Every time Wayne Williams has a party every summer, I’m there, because I love house music. I’m a house head, so I decided to do a house album. I got like five songs done, and I’m gonna finish it once I get my R&B album out of the way.

I imagine it’s very different working on a house album.

Oh yeah, definitely. First of all, your energy has got to be on 100—way up there. Because you’re dealing with tempo and 4/4 beats. It’s sort of like church. And I love it, because that’s where I come from, that 4/4 beat, that church and that groove, so I feel at home. I really feel like I’m going to visit old friends when I go into the house genre of music, and I feel good when I’m doing it.

There was talk of turning “Trapped in the Closet” into a Broadway musical. Was that something you were seriously looking into?

Well, it’s definitely something we were discussing, and the discussion obviously got out there a little earlier than it was supposed to. But we definitely were talking about that then, and we are talking about it now. I’m creating a stage performance for “Trapped in the Closet,” and we definitely want to put it on Broadway. But, you know, those things take investors, people that believe in it. So you’re waiting on the right people to come to the circle, and to bring the right things to the circle to make it happen.

Are you going to add more chapters to the project?

I have like 40 more chapters to “Trapped in the Closet” already done and in the studio. Man, I’m gonna go Forrest Gump with this thing, and get some of everything done! [Laughs]

Do you have plans to release them yet, or are you just sitting on them?

Naw, I’m sitting on them, because I want it to be right. You know, you need investors and people who want to put up the money these days to put these things out and make them happen the right way. But I do have 40 more chapters done; I just gotta shoot it.

Can you even keep track of all the characters at this point? There are so many that I feel like I’d always be getting them confused.

Oh yeah! I’ve come to know them personally. I mean, I bring out my chops every time I got into the studio to do new chapters, of course, because I want to stay consistent with the story. But trapped in the closet is always changing stories. There’s almost no rules to it, you can come up with any kind of character at any given time and create a story around them. That’s the beautiful thing about “Trapped in the Closet.” It’s not a movie. It’s not a video. It’s an alien. [Laughs]

Were you surprised the project resonated with people the way it did? It really became a phenomenon.

I was so afraid to put it out, because I really didn’t know what it was myself. But I knew it felt good, and I knew it made sense, and I knew it had never been done before. And me being the Evel Knievel of the business that I am, I felt like I should take this jump, and it happened. So I’m glad for that, and I’m so excited to show the world the rest of the chapters.

You’re turning 50 soon. Do you have any plans to celebrate?

I wanna go on a birthday tour. Something that’s never been done, because I like to celebrate. I always end up celebrating the whole month of January, not only being successful and having reached a lot of goals, but just having the same birthday as Elvis—I always loved that, and I thought there was something to that. So I just want to go out and do a whole birthday tour, almost like a club tour, and letting people celebrate with me in as many cities as I can in the month of January, all celebrating my 50th birthday like that. Because if you stay in the house, you gon’ have one party, and you’re gon’ wake up with a hangover, and then it’s gon’ be over! But, man, I want to party!

You’re a big Elvis fan?

Oh, absolutely; if you listen to “Trapped in the Closet”…  I loved when Elvis would sing in movies. He’d sing his dialogue in movies.

That was an inspiration?

It wasn’t an inspiration, but I remember him doing it, and I always watched that. And as a kid coming up, I loved that, because it was entertaining. It wasn’t just a movie with dialogue; it was more entertaining because he was singing and interacting and stuff like that. He went from talking to singing, and singing to talking, and I thought that was pretty cool.

He was never afraid to look a little ridiculous. He was always willing to put himself out there if he thought it would be entertaining.

There’s never nothing wrong with that! It’s all out of fun and entertainment, man.

R. Kelly’s
12 Nights of Christmas Tour stops at the Riverside Theater on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 8 p.m.


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