Born Robert S. Kelly on January 8, 1968, in Chicago, IL; son of Joanne Kelly (a schoolteacher); married Aaliyah (a singer), 1994 (annulled); married Andrea Lee (a dancer), 1996; children: Joanne and Jaya. Addresses: Record company--Jive Records, 137-139 West 25th St., New York, NY 10001. Website--R. Kelly Official Website: http://www.r-kelly.com.
Singer, songwriter, and music producer R. Kelly arrived on the music scene in the early 1990s with a sound reminiscent of traditional R&B music. Kelly's music often explores sexual themes, both openly and through sly innuendo--an aspect to be found in one of the very sources of contemporary R&B, the blues. On the other hand, the spiritual lyrics and powerful vocal delivery of Kelly's performances are clearly marked by the influence of gospel, another cornerstone in African-American music and culture. Some critics and listeners have found the marriage of sexuality and religion to be troubling, but that barrier has already been broken by once shocking but now revered acts such as Marvin Gaye and Prince. As Essence writer Gordon Chambers asserted, "Like many of our great soulmen, Kelly sings about the needs of both the flesh and the spirit." In 2002, Kelly was accused of child pornography when a videotape surfaced that allegedly showed him involved in sexual acts with a minor. Many critics predicted the damaging allegations would be the end of his career; Kelly, however, continued to churn out hit single after hit single while dealing with the lawsuit.
Kelly's story is a familiar rags-to-riches ascent. Born Robert Kelly on January 8, 1968, in the south side of Chicago, Kelly was surrounded by hardship and poverty from the beginning. One of four children, Kelly was raised by a struggling single mother and schoolteacher, Joanne, in Chicago's housing projects. Even before he had reached adolescence, Kelly was assailed by negative peer pressures and the violent seduction of teen crime. However, the young Kelly eluded the aversive lures of his environment, thanks largely to the spiritual guidance of his mother and the introduction of music into his life. At Joanne's suggestion, Kelly sang backup for a local church choir that performed in storefronts. Not only did Kelly begin to shape the vocal style that launched his career within the church, he also found an uplifting network of support outside of the fraternity of street gangs.
Met His Mentor
When Kelly was 16 years old, his mother managed to move her family away from the projects and enroll her son into Kenwood Academy, a Chicago public school. It was there that Kelly met his mentor, Lena McLin, who chaired Kenwood's music faculty and of whom Kelly later described as a second mother. McLin immediately spotted the natural yet unpolished musical talent within Kelly, and pushed him to harness it through participation in school and church choir groups, and intense piano training. But McLin's influence went beyond that of a mere tutor. Sympathetic to Kelly's economic position, McLin would often buy her needy student food or clothes. More importantly, she pressed Kelly to have faith in his abilities, assuring him that one day he would record with his idol, singer Michael Jackson. "She made me feel I could do anything," Kelly told People in 1994.
Kelly's first burst of success came when McLin placed him in a local talent show to perform a version of "Ribbon in the Sky," a song by Motown legend Stevie Wonder. The performance was met with unequivocal approval from a screaming audience, and for the first time Kelly felt that the hopes McLin held for him were within his reach. Armed with a boosted self-confidence and the beginnings of an image, Kelly was ready to break into the record industry.
Before being discovered, Kelly took his act to the streets. Backed up by a clique of partners in song, Kelly became a fixture on the sidewalks of Chicago, crooning to passersby as he accompanied with a modest electronic keyboard. It was not long before the collection hat at Kelly's feet began amassing several hundred dollars per day from appreciative onlookers. Kelly's collection of street performers eventually evolved into a bona fide R&B outfit called MGM, which built upon the growing success of the street group. After MGM won a $100,000 grand prize on a syndicated television talent show called Big Break, Kelly was tapped by Jive Records agent Wayne Williams. In 1990, Jive Records signed Kelly onto their roster of artists, and ushered him into the recording studio.
A Polished Debut
Within a year of joining Jive Records, Kelly released his debut album entitled Born into the '90s, a polished collection of the kind of slow tempo R&B Kelly had been perfecting on the streets. The record sold over a million copies and featured several single releases including "She's Got That Vibe" and "Honey Love." Even though Born into the '90s scored on the R&B and soul charts, it was largely ignored by critics as well as by the mainstream of record buyers.
After the release of his follow-up album 12 Play in 1994, Kelly ranked as a true R&B superstar. He took hold of media attention, both positive and negative. On this album, which Kelly wrote, produced, and arranged, smooth harmonies were accompanied by sexual lyrics that pushed the limits of what mainstream radio airplay would allow. Kelly's live stage performance shifted to reflect this as well. Surrounded by an entourage of scantily dressed stage dancers, Kelly would season his singing with suggestive body language and often doff his pants at the concerts' peaks. Besides winning a legion of often screaming female fans, Kelly's unbridled celebration of sex provoked censure from critics and moral watchdogs. Much of the music press regarded Kelly as a mere shock artist, and he was also attacked for being too explicit for young listeners. Nonetheless, Kelly's popularity outweighed any backlash, and he became a mainstay in R&B pop music.
12 Play sold over five million copies worldwide, offering two gold singles on its lineup, "Sex Me" and "Your Body's Callin'," as well as the platinum-selling "Bump N' Grind." The latter became the longest running number one R&B hit in over 30 years on the singles chart in Billboard magazine. The overwhelming popularity of 12 Play ensued in a largely sold-out world tour with rap act Salt N' Pepa, and at the end of 1994 Kelly was voted Number One R&B producer and R&B Artist of the Year by Billboard.
Impressed by the production work on 12 Play, an array of artists, including Aaliyah, Changing Faces, Toni Braxton, Johnny Gill, and Quincy Jones, approached Kelly as a producer and arranger for their own recordings. In addition, Kelly was contacted by singer Janet Jackson to write a ballad especially for her brother, Michael. The result was the number one hit "You Are Not Alone," fulfilling the hopeful prediction made by Lena McLin years earlier. The song is evidence of Kelly's understanding of gospel music, an aspect that had been present in his first two recordings, but one that did not flourish until this time. Feeling the emotional toll of his mother Joanne's death in 1993, Kelly found himself looking in more spiritual directions.
These changes were reflected in Kelly's music, which began to move in a new stylistic direction. Like many other black musicians, Kelly had made no secret of the fact that he drew heavily on the gospel music that he had sung as a youth. He stated in Ebony, "Take away the sexy bump and grind, and you can easily put in gospel lyrics." Possibly as a result of his mother's death from cancer in 1993, Kelly began making music that connected with gospel more directly. His third album, R. Kelly, included several gospel tunes, and he broke through to a wider pop audience than he had ever previously reached with his huge 1996 hit "I Believe I Can Fly," from the soundtrack of the film Space Jam. Although not strictly a religious song, "I Believe I Can Fly" bowed toward gospel in its quotation of the turn-of-the-century revival hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" and in the swelling choral lines that generated its glorious climax. The song deftly fused gospel with a Disney-esque language of inspiration, and soon became a fixture of high-school choir presentations all over the country. Kelly won his first three Grammy Awards for the song.
On Kelly's next album, simply titled R., he continued his path away from overt sexual references to more spiritual fare, though old habit seemed to be hard to break: one single still implored a potential mate to go "half on a baby" with him. An unlikely duet with Canadian diva Celine Dion was surprisingly well-received; rappers Jay-Z and Nas also made appearances on R. Jay-Z's collaboration with Kelly, the single "We Ride," was so successful that the two artists collaborated again, with Jay-Z adding a verse to the remix of "Fiesta" from TP-2.com, the follow-up to R. Released in 2000, TP-2.com represented both the sexual and spiritual side of Kelly's music with the singles "I Wish" and "Feeling on Yo Booty."
Jay-Z and Kelly teamed up yet again in 2002 on the much-hyped CD The Best of Both Worlds, but damaging allegations against Kelly tainted the album sales. A videotape allegedly showing Kelly having sexual relations with a 14-year-old girl was anonymously sent to a Chicago newspaper, and Kelly was soon faced with problems much deeper than lagging album sales. Jay-Z distanced himself from Kelly in the wake of the scandal, canceling a joint tour and refusing to appear in photos with Kelly. Kelly was arrested in June of 2002 and charged with nearly two dozen accounts of child pornography; he was spared statutory rape charges because the minor in question refused to press charges.
In the immediate wake of the scandal, radio stations around the country pulled Kelly's songs from the radio, and many critics predicted a quick end to his career. However, Kelly continued to deny the allegations, suggesting that he was being framed by a man posing as him, and dealt with the trouble in the best way he knew how--by returning to the studio. "The studio is his escape," his friend and colleague Regina Daniels told Newsweek's Allison Samuels. The resulting album, Chocolate Factory, was filled with some of Kelly's most brazenly sexual songs since 12 Play. The first single, "Ignition Remix" (featuring automobile metaphors as come-ons), was a smash hit, and drove the album to multiplatinum status in mere months. "Whatever you think of the singer," Samuels wrote, "the music deserves attention. It's one of his best albums to date, seamlessly fusing hip-hop and R&B...." Many people criticized radio's support of songs like "Ignition Remix," but Kelly, in a rare post-arrest interview with Soren Baker of Billboard magazine, voiced his opinion: "People have to understand that this is my job.... Not only have I been able to eat for 15 years, but there's a lot of people, not just in my record company but kids in other cities, kids in hospitals that have been able to eat because of my songs, because I decided to write songs and because I continue to write. I feel good about that."
by Shaun Frentner
R. Kelly's Career
R. Kelly's Awards
Billboard Awards, Number One R&B Producer and R&B Artist of the Year, 1994, Artist of the Year, Album of the Year for TP-2.com, Single of the Year for "Fiesta," and Songwriter of the Year, 2001, Best Hip-Hop/R&B Single for "Ignition Remix," 2003; Grammy Awards for "I Believe I Can Fly," Best Male R&B Vocal Performance, Best Song Written for a Motion Picture or for Television, and Best R&B Song, 1997; NAACP Image Award for "I Believe I Can Fly," Outstanding Song, 1997; Billboard Annual R&B/Hip-Hop Awards, Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums Artist and R&B/Hip-Hop Songwriter of the Year, 2001; The Source, R&B Artist of the Year, 2001; Soul Train Awards, Best R&B/Soul Single for "I Wish," Best R&B/Soul Album for TP-2.com, 2001; Black Entertainment Television (BET) award, Best Male R&B Artist, 2003.
- Selected discography
- Born into the '90s Jive, 1991.
- 12 Play Jive, 1994.
- R. Kelly Jive, 1996.
- (Contributor) Space Jam (soundtrack), Atlantic, 1996.
- R. Jive, 1998.
- TP-2.com Jive, 2000.
- (With Jay-Z) The Best of Both Worlds Universal, 2002.
- Chocolate Factory Jive, 2003.
- The R. in R&B Collection, Vol. 1 Jive, 2003.
August 8, 2003: Kelly received two Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Awards, including best single, and most single sales, for "Ignition." Source: Launch, launch.yahoo.com/read/news.asp?contentID=214341, August 14, 2003.
September 23, 2003: Kelly's album, R. In R&B Collection, Vol. 1, was released. Source: Yahoo! Shopping, shopping.yahoo.com/p___1921995027?d=product&id=1921995027&, September 26, 2003.
March 17, 2004: Prosecutors dropped 12 child pornography charges in Florida against Kelly. The decision followed a judge's ruling that detectives illegally seized photographs allegedly showing the singer having sex with an underage girl, meaning they could not be used against him. Prosecutors chose not to appeal. Kelly still faces 14 other child pornography charges in Chicago, Illinois. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com, March 18, 2004.
August 10, 2004: Kelly's album, Happy People/U Saved Me, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_6/index.jsp, August 11, 2004.
November 1, 2004: Kelly filed a $75 million breach-of-contract suit against Jay-Z, alleging that their Best of Both Worlds Tour had turned violent. Source: E! Online, www.eonline.com, November 2, 2004.
- Billboard, September 27, 2003.
- Business Wire, April 7, 2003.
- Ebony, July 1996; September 1998.
- Entertainment Weekly, February 28, 2003; March 14, 2003.
- Essence, February 1996.
- Jet, May 27, 2002.
- Newsweek, November 6, 1995; November 16, 1998; April 14, 2003.
- People, May 30, 1994.
- Time, April 8, 2002.
- "R. Kelly," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (October 4, 2003).
- R. Kelly Official Website, http://www.r-kelly.com (October 6, 2003).