On R. Kelly's new single, "I'm a Flirt," the R&B lothario refers to himself as "a dog on the prowl" as he warns the world about his wanton ways. The buoyant song, whose lyrical content is somewhat tame by the singer's legendarily lascivious standards, has been creeping up the Billboard charts and just might become one of the defining summer jams of 2007.
But "I'm a Flirt" isn't R. Kelly's most noteworthy new single: The mercurial artist has just released a Virginia Tech tribute, "Rise Up," on the Internet. Written, performed and produced by Kelly shortly after the April 16 massacre in Blacksburg, "Rise Up" is a treacly ballad designed for maximum uplift, with a gospel choir, swelling choruses and messages of comfort and encouragement. "Not gonna lie and say I understand," Kelly sings. "I just wanna be here for you if I can / To hold your hand and be by your side / And together we will get through these times."
That there would be a major artist memorializing the Virginia Tech tragedy is hardly a surprise. That the tribute came from R. Kelly and not, say, the noted pop healer Elton John, was at least a little unexpected, given Kelly's rep as modern soul's sultan of strange -- a singer of sex-obsessed songs who happens to be awaiting trial on child-pornography-related charges.
Then again, Kelly has shown a more earnest, inspirational side in the past, writing such sweeping anthems as "I Believe I Can Fly," a Grammy-winning hit from 1996. More recently, he has written and recorded songs about Hurricane Katrina ("Let Your Light Shine") and American troops in the Middle East ("Soldier's Heart").
"There are two R. Kellys," says the singer's spokesman, Allan Mayer. "There's the spiritual, inspiring side, and there's the more carnal side. One is fun, entertaining, sexy, and the other is more uplifting. They're both part of life. The way Robert thinks about it is that he's neither all of one or the other. He's very aware of how sharp the dichotomy can seem, but it's just who he is."
Kelly is "a complicated soul," says Danyel Smith, editor of Vibe magazine, which has Kelly on its May cover. "It makes sense that he would be touched by what happened at Virginia Tech because he's a soulful guy. He feels things.... There are a lot of people who feel awful about the tragedy, but do they have the nerve, in a country that requires cool first, to be earnest and emotional, empathetic and sympathetic? No. But Robert Kelly does."
Proceeds from sales of "Rise Up" will be donated to Virginia Tech's Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund. (The track will also appear on Kelly's forthcoming album, "Double Up.")
Could it be that the 40-year-old artist is doing a bit of image rehabilitation in advance of his trial, which could begin this summer in his home town of Chicago? Time magazine opined on its website this week that Kelly "seems to be jumping on the Blacksburg bandwagon" and called the idea "gross." Kelly's spokesman rejects the idea.
"Robert has always responded as an artist in this way," Mayer says. "If he was concerned with image rehab in his music, he wouldn't release songs like 'I'm a Flirt.' Whatever else you can say about Robert, he's an authentic artist and he does what he feels. He certainly doesn't calculate his music to support some kind of image."
Are Virginia Tech officials squeamish about being memorialized by Kelly, given his oeuvre and his pending trial? "We can't get into the business of endorsing or not endorsing any particular efforts," says Michael Kaiser, director of development communications at the university. "We're very grateful for all these people who are rallying to help.... As long as we're convinced the money that's coming to us has been gained legally and ethically, we welcome it."
Kelly isn't the first musician to write a song about the Virginia Tech shootings. The Internet has been flooded with tribute tracks, including "Forever Changed" by the Season, whose principal members graduated from the university. And Houston rapper Lil' Flip whipped up a rambling song set to Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." Ironically, Lil' Flip's untitled song appears on his MySpace page alongside "Bust a Clip," which glorifies guns and includes the sound of 22 gunshots.