The Problem with R. Kelly

Jun. 3, 2009
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After an unusual quiet period, R. Kelly returned this week with The Demo Tape, a new DJ Drama mix loaded with interpolations of recent singles like Kanye West's "Love Lockdown," Keri Hilson's "Turning Me on," Soulja Boy's "Turn My Swag On," T. Pain's "Chopped & Screwed" and Jeremih's possible Song of the Summer "Birthday Sex." The mix hits plenty of sweet spots, as R. Kelly releases usually do, but it suffers from the same problem as Kelly's 2007 album, Double Up: the singer's increasingly braying personality.

A graduate of the I-take-what-I-want school of New Jack Swing, Kelly is beginning to sound out of touch. He doesn't seduce women, he barks commands at them. He calls his listeners "bitch," but not in a disarming, Lil Wayne way. He's got some anger issues. He's always on edge. He doesn't cut his arrogance with wit. In other words, R. Kelly's an asshole.   

Meanwhile, commercial R&B is experiencing a renaissance because it's beginning to reject those outmoded New Jack Swing conventions. R&B's new visionaries aren't gun-waving thugs; they're personable lotharios. There's the sentimental gentleman (Ne-Yo); the conflicted loverboy (The-Dream); and the lovable, girl-crazed oddball (T-Pain). They're all dynamic personalities, as capable of having their hearts broken as they are of breaking hearts. Even Kanye West, who easily rivals Kelly in the arrogance department, opened up to record a break-up album, yet Kelly remains a cold, invulnerable figure, dispassionately singing of mean-spirited sex with women he doesn't like. Kelly is still formidable in his slippery phrasing and with his knack for escapist jams, but his younger peers are doing the same thing with twice the charm and 10 times the heart.


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