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Media Shy, Music Savvy : R. Kelly--a writer, producer and singer with the Midas touch--is a dominant force in R&B. So what's a little, um, intense scrutiny among friends? 'You don't know how I am in real life.'

December 10, 1995|Cheo H. Coker | Cheo H. Coker writes about pop music for Calendar

Robert Kelly is a young man who likes to win--and keep his distance.

Whether you're talking about the recording studio, where he has written or produced some of the biggest R&B hits of recent years, or, in this case, his daily basketball game with a few members of his inner circle, it all comes down to victory.

Kelly's sweat-soaked bald head glistens in the light of a street lamp as he looks past the opposing players toward the hoop, which has been set up near Kelly's tour bus in a downtown Los Angeles parking lot. He's in the area to film a video for his new single, "You Remind Me of Something."

Kelly's lanky but chiseled frame is clad entirely in white, giving him an almost angelic glow in the dwindling daylight. Even if he weren't an R&B superstar, it would still be difficult to keep your eyes off him.

Spinning through the defenders' hacking arms, Kelly fakes to his left and goes up for an off-balance, right-handed layup, falling to the ground as the ball hits the backboard and banks into the basket.

Game--and fun time--are over.

Besides the video, Kelly has also agreed to do a rare interview. After delaying it for five hours while he plays basketball and works on the video, Kelly is ready. Sort of.

Picking himself up off the ground, he walks toward the sideline and into his bus.

"What'chu want to ask me about?" he asks with mild suspicion as he sits down, slightly winded from his workout. A thick drawl that doesn't show up in his singing voice saturates his speech.

Kelly--who performs under the name R. Kelly--is a writer, producer and singer with the Midas touch. His production style, which is heavily rhythmic with a strong nod to hip-hop but elegant and smooth enough to merit comparison to the classic Isley Brothers ballads of the late '70s, is a dominant force in contemporary R&B.

Turn on any urban radio station and seven of 10 songs will sound as if Kelly produced them. His first two albums, "Born Into the '90s" and "12-Play," sold 1 million and 4 million copies, respectively, and his new collection, "R. Kelly," is off to a fast start. It entered the pop charts at No. 1 last month and is expected to be a major seller through the holidays.

But he's equally known in the industry for producing hits for other artists, notably Michael Jackson's recent chart-topping single "You Are Not Alone." Kelly has also produced million-selling singles for Changing Faces and teenage sensation Aaliyah.

So why does he tend to shy away from the media?

Kelly is sick of all the scrutiny that has accompanied his success, especially the avalanche of publicity involving his relationship with Aaliyah.

Although Kelly, through management statements, has repeatedly denied rumors that he married the singer, Vibe magazine last January reported finding an Illinois marriage license filed in September 1994 for Robert S. Kelly, 27, and Aaliyah D. Haughton, 18. (She would have been 15 at the time, based on the age she had given in earlier interviews.)

E ven close to a year later, with the two having split and Kelly having avoided interviews for many months, the subject is still sensitive. He declines during the interview to comment directly on her or the marriage speculation.

"To hell with music, singing and all this other [expletive], I'm a human being," he says emphatically. "People need to get out of the kitchen and realize what's going on here. There's only one judge. And he ain't even on the Earth. If you're gonna be scared of someone, there's only one person to be scared of, and that's God. He's the only one that can judge me. He who is without sin, cast the first stone. That's what it all boils down to."

Kelly suddenly looks drained, as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders.

"I'm not Robert anymore," he says finally. "I love to be Robert, but everybody is trying to make me R. Kelly. When you become successful, you're suddenly under the magnifying glass. If I'm on the court and I shoot a ball, it's not like it used to be. I'm R. Kelly now, I can't miss a single shot. If I do, people are like 'Naw, he can't play. He's a buster. That brother better stay in the studio.' With everything I do, I have to be on my Ps and Qs, but I don't want to look at it that way."

Being a superstar can be a tough job, even to someone as talented as Kelly.

It means being the man he portrays in his songs--the tireless Casanova with a sensitive warble in his throat and lust in his eyes. It means mixing, in his vocals and his delivery, the sinful and the sanctified--much as Ray Charles, Al Green and Marvin Gaye did before him.

It also means being the slow, deliberate Romeo in a song such as "It Seems Like You're Ready" but being bold enough to tell a girl "I Like the Crotch in You"--because many of his female fans apparently appreciate the duality of his character.

Not that he's without his critics, some of whom find his music sexist and overly erotic.

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