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'Ignition' powers Kelly's album to top

February 27, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Eight months after R. Kelly appeared to be in a career freefall amid scandal and felony child pornography charges, the R&B star has posted the single best week of sales in his career and entered the nation's album chart at No. 1.

"Chocolate Factory," the singer's seventh album, sold 532,000 copies last week, putting it ahead of releases by 50 Cent, Norah Jones and the Dixie Chicks in the tally released Wednesday by Nielsen SoundScan.

That showing is a jolting contrast to the spot Kelly found himself in last summer, when some in his inner circle were wondering if he would have to abandon the role of recording artist and settle for the less public position of a studio producer. At that time, a barrage of criminal charges and lawsuits painted the 32-year-old Chicagoan as a serial exploiter of underage girls. A home video that allegedly showed him sexually degrading a young girl was hawked on street corners in Chicago. His high-profile album collaboration with rapper Jay-Z tanked, and the latter refused to appear in public with Kelly.

Now the singer of "I Believe I Can Fly" and other R&B hits has returned to form with "Ignition," a hit single that propelled "Chocolate Factory's" success. Like many of his tunes, the song is jammed with sexual imagery ("So buckle up, 'cause this can get bumpy, babe"), and it stirred such fan interest that retailers increased advance orders on the album and set the stage for this week's debut.

"It appears to be the song here in this case," said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard magazine. "I didn't know what to expect -- if his sales came down I wouldn't have been surprised, but the song has been strong." Erik Parker, the music editor at Vibe magazine, which covers hip-hop and R&B, said there were plenty of "people disturbed, and jokes and raised eyebrows" over the sexual lyrics in "Factory."

"It was a brilliant career move for him to stay with the sexual relationship music because that's what he has always done best," Parker said. "And the more he's around, the less sting it has. Some of his fans haven't forgiven him, but others will get tired of talking about it."

Kelly's problems by no means have been cured with a hit album. He is awaiting trial on child pornography charges in Illinois and Florida, and if convicted on all charges could face a penalty of more than 15 years in prison. But at least for the moment his music is center stage.

"He has a legendary status with a lot of people; there are a lot of young people who view him as the Stevie Wonder of our time," said Violet Brown, urban music buyer for the Wherehouse chain. "He is the R&B genius of this time, and music and creativity always lead the way over the rest of the stuff. And what's that they say about no such thing as bad publicity?"

There is certainly an argument to be made for that adage. Michael Jackson, for instance, has been the oddest exhibit in the unkind circus of tabloid television in recent weeks, but the public has not recoiled. Before the spate of TV exposes, Jackson's classic "Thriller" was selling about 1,700 copies most weeks. Last week it sold 5,100 copies. Likewise, Jackson's greatest-hits collection topped 8,000 copies last week, more than triple its recent standard.

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