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Rated R. Kelly for sex, race and power

When the talk is all between the sheets, what's to read between the lines?

June 04, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

WHATEVER view one takes of R. Kelly -- that he is obscene, insane, outlandish, played out, musical kingpin or joker -- one thing is irrefutable: America deserves him. Five years after being indicted on charges of child pornography, dozens of hits into a career spent raunching up R&B, Kelly's enjoying yet another climb up the charts with his eighth solo album, "Double Up." Defenders of morality and good taste must wonder how the honey-voiced potty mouth remains so successful, or at least hope that his flamboyant tastelessness represents the endpoint of sexually explicit pop.

On "Double Up," Kelly comes up with doozies like "Sex Planet," an intergalactic lovemaking tour that makes a memorable stop at Uranus; "The Zoo," in which Kelly's "heated animal" jungle visions give way to monkey grunts; and "Sweet Tooth," a sugar-soaked ode to orality. The album's 15 other tracks offer much groping, shaking and licking, with only a few inspirational ballads puncturing the flow. Even the song about having a baby earns an R rating. It's hard to imagine anyone going farther, outside the exiled realm of pornography itself.

It's difficult, that is, unless one hears Kelly's music as a particularly warped contribution to a musical conversation about sexuality and power in a racist society that certain African American artists have been engaged in for at least 150 years.

Such a reassessment doesn't diminish the shamefulness of Kelly's alleged personal behavior. Nor does it earn him forgiveness for the musical laziness that mars the predictable club bangers on "Double Up" -- likely hits that show guest stars Nelly, Ludacris and Snoop Dogg working harder than their host. (One exception is the excellent "I'm a Flirt," featuring T.I. and T-Pain; Kelly's fully present in this understatement of the hip-hop year.) But it does provide some clues to the Kelly mystique and suggests that his work is only an outpost on a path that just keeps extending.

Take those three much-talked-about songs based on extended metaphors. "The Zoo" is the most shocking; what African American man in his right mind would compare himself to a wild animal? The act opens a Pandora's box of racist "jungle bunny" references, stretching back to the days when P.T. Barnum exhibited a man with a strangely shaped head, William Henry Johnson, as "a Man-Monkey ... found during a gorilla-hunting expedition near the Gambia river in Western Africa."

Yet African American performers themselves have been tackling these images since at least 1902. That year, "In Dahomey," the all-black musical staged by the pioneering vaudeville team of Williams and Walker, featured a carnivalesque jungle fantasy starring actors dressed as amphibians, performing a duet on a song called "My Lady Frog." In her book about early black American performance, "Bodies in Dissent," Daphne A. Brooks describes the colorful scene as "bodies out of swamps, swamps into bodies" and discusses the shock it generated among audiences. The critical huffing and puffing surrounding the musical foreshadows the fuss that surrounds Kelly today.

As for Kelly's journey into space, that's been a theme since Sun Ra declared space to be the place in the 1950s. George Clinton and his P-Funk crew launched their influential funk Mothership in the mid-1970s. Betty Davis, the undeservedly obscure funk queen who set the stage for female transgressors such as Lil' Kim and Kelis with her recordings of the same period, wore a modified spacesuit; her signature song was entitled "He Was a Big Freak." There's enough of this stuff that a term has been coined to describe it: "Afrofuturism." Kelly may not have heard Davis or read the work of Samuel Delaney, whose science-fiction tales explore frankly sexual themes, but "Sex Planet" adds to their legacy.

Kelly has also attached himself, again perhaps unwittingly, to classic blues. Critics have singled out Kelly's reference to his conquest's "black hole" as particularly gross, but is it really any worse than Blind Boy Fuller's "Sweet Honey Hole" or Charley Lincoln's "Doodle Hole," both recorded around 1930? As for the lip-licking "Sweet Tooth," it's not even worth listing all the foods that have been compared to women's privates in blues songs.

What Kelly's output shares with dirty blues is an obsession with racist stereotypes surrounding black American sexuality. "I propose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which and within which the action unfolds," novelist and critic Ralph Ellison wrote in 1953, of the immensity and cultural power of the stereotypes. A major strain of popular music, from blues to soul to funk to hip-hop, has given voice to that giant: internalizing, caricaturing or raging against the assumption that to be black is to be hypersexual, primitive, in need of restraint.

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