CHICAGO — The best way to tell when R. Kelly has a new album is to count the number of friends who come out to play basketball with the R&B superstar at a gym just five blocks from the United Center, home of Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
You can usually count on finding Kelly with burly bodyguard Big John, who stands as tall as the Hancock Building, a handful of gym rats including Alan Brown (the brother of Bulls guard Randy Brown) and Kelly's 52-year-old father-figure George Daniels, a former Chess Records janitor who now owns a popular West Side record store.
But in the last few weeks the parking lot at Hoops has been full. A real space jam--with a new album ready to raise his profile, Kelly has become a magnet for a large squad of players who believe they can fast-break with the city's biggest music celebrity.
The album, a two-disc set titled "R.," is easily the most ambitious project of his career. It's his first record in three years and the follow-up to his 4-million seller "R. Kelly."
Kelly, 30, has never extended himself stylistically as much as he has on "R.," which has sold nearly 350,000 copies in just two weeks. The collection's 29 tracks explore hip-hop, old-school soul, funk, gospel, throwaway opera and--in the hit anthem "I'm Your Angel," which Kelly sings with Celine Dion--pop. The elegance of "Angel" underscores Kelly's rapid maturation as a songwriter. The duet extends the roaring majesty of the Grammy-winning "I Believe I Can Fly," which closes the album.
"I'm Your Angel" was written, produced and arranged by Kelly. Dion and Kelly trade off on smooth vocals before joining voices in front of a 25-piece choir. It's hard to believe that four years ago Kelly was singing "I Like the Crotch on You" and "Freak Dat Body" and occasionally dropping his pants in concert.
"I want people to notice my writing abilities are real and that I'm not just stuck in one situation," Kelly said during a 1 a.m. interview at Chicago Trax Recording Studios, in the shadows of the Cabrini Green housing project.
"I've been boxed with one style of music. I want to show people that I'm a global writer and I can do 'Half on a Baby' [a smooth love song and the first single from "R."] and turn around and do 'I Believe I Can Fly.' "
Kelly's sense of spiritual awakening began to emerge in public during a 1997 concert in Chicago when his voice trembled as he proclaimed, "I've come to find out that whatever it is you want, it's in the Lord. I used to be flying in sin--now I'm flying in Jesus."
Standing alongside Kelly was his spiritual soul-mate, hip-hop gospel singer Kirk Franklin. Kelly has since said that his concert proclamation has been overblown. But to confine his recent growth to mere shifts in musical styles marginalizes the newfound flourishing of his soul. Kelly is now flying with the gospel-soul duality of Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Chicagoan Sam Cooke.
"I'm experimenting with the way I want to go," Kelly said. "It's a big decision. I want to be careful about the type of songs I come out with. I want to look at myself and my life. I'll slack up on the lyrics. My old lyrics are kind of bogus. It's all part of growing. You can't stay in one spot.
"But everyone is thinking I changed my life. I'm not that different. I'm just doing what everyone else is trying to do, and that's to be righteous--don't be out there in clubs, hitting on all kind of women. That's dangerous. You have to change your life, and you need God in your life to make that change. You can't do it by yourself."
Kelly rarely arrives at the studio before midnight. He likes the isolation of the night. He is generally shy around strangers. Whether in the studio, on the basketball court or during an interview, he rarely breaks out in a hearty smile.
Despite the lyric of "I Believe I Can Fly," Kelly in fact does not like to fly. He takes buses to all his concerts. Kelly is not married, although in 1994 rumors rolled through Chicago that he was married to singer Aaliyah, then 16. Kelly consistently refuses to discuss his personal life.
But the uplifting gospel spirit that frames "I'm Your Angel" and "I Believe I Can Fly" sheds light on his roots. Kelly was born in Chicago and attended Kenwood High School, the South Side prep academy that also produced soul diva Chaka Khan and rapper Da Brat.
Music teacher Lena McLin was a pivotal force in Kelly's life. McLin's uncle was the late gospel legend Thomas A. Dorsey. She fronts her own gospel group, Lena McLin & the McLin Singers, and is pastor at the Holy Vessel Baptist Church on the South Side.
McLin, now 69, talked Kelly into wearing dark glasses and singing Stevie Wonder's 1982 hit "Ribbon in the Sky" at a Kenwood High School talent show. "That night it was like Spiderman being bit," said Kelly, who still wears dark glasses on occasion. "I discovered this power. I knew I had something then."