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The Dualists 

R. Kelly’s R&B thuggery, Al Green’s sacred sensuality

Thursday, Apr 17 2003
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Photo (top) by Reisig & Taylor

It takes extraordinary hubris, dazzling stupidity or both for an accused pedophile to name a record The Chocolate Factory. (And if the accused really does have the rumored predilection for tossing salad, then the ewwww factor goes way off the charts.) Such an act of F-you defiance would be positively awe-inspiring if the crime in question weren’t so egregious. That such a title even got out of the record-company gate is also a sign that all handlers either are being ignored or have simply washed their hands of the matter.

When it comes to the age-old question of whether art should be condemned for the real or suspected sins of its creator, the art itself is what muddies the waters. You can loathe Miles Davis’ real-life misogyny but still be moved to powerful reveries by his music. Roman Polanski’s perpetually pending rape charge might make you spit when his name is mentioned, but his film The Pianist is a near-flawless work of art, illuminating countless avenues of the human spirit and condition. And do you really want to boycott Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Tenant and Repulsion? Davis, Polanski and countless others, it could be argued, owe the force of their work to the very demons that rend their characters. The energy spent to suppress or indulge those demons may be the same element that gives their art its weight, beauty, resonance. That’s not an excuse, just an acknowledgment that the roots of even the most sublime expressions are not always divine.

R. Kelly doesn’t make high art. Even his love songs are fairly conventional: The best ones stand alongside, or nestle just beneath, classic soul tunes from the ’60s or ’70s; the rest are feelin’-on-ya-booty/you-remind-me-of-my-jeep/thug-luv sleaze and drivel. Kelly the songwriter and performer is, more often than not, crude, base and artless. Many of his fans lump all that together and call it “sexy.” That speaks directly to the tenor of our times — the sad and hollow excuses for sexuality, sensuality and artistry that flow through both “urban” and popular cultures. And when Kelly does aspire to something higher, he often makes schlock. The one dubiously admirable quality of his sappy Oscar-nominated hit, “I Believe I Can Fly,” is how coldly and successfully calculated it is. Kelly set out to make a huge crossover smash, and he did, brilliantly tapping into the boundless American appetite for cheap sentimentality.

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The Chocolate Factory finds Kelly both at his very best — in fact, better than he’s ever been — and flaunting his worst creative instincts. The upsides are several. The title track, actually the first song, is an ode to a (presumably adult) lover, with production and arrangements that nod slightly to Barry White; it’s even vaguely reminiscent of the White classic “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Next to Me.” “Step in the Name of Love,” salvaged from the abandoned, ill-fated Loveland album, is a gently perfumed breeze, more a vibe than an actual song, but it’s hypnotically sexy, irresistibly playful. The back-to-back pledges of devotion “Forever” and “Dream Girl” are lush and genuinely romantic, the latter exuding pure Stevie Wonder. The conga-driven “You Knock Me Out” eerily evokes Marvin Gaye, who’s also summoned on the bonus remix of “Step in the Name of Love,” where Kelly’s moaned “whoa” could’ve been sampled straight from Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology).” Throughout the collection, richly textured backing vocals don’t just fill in space, they’re integral threads in the musical tapestry. And Kelly, the most influential male R&B singer of the ’90s (the king of hip-hop soul to Mary J’s queen), doesn’t oversing in the manner of so many contemporaries. His gritty, grainy voice flares emotion from growl to falsetto, and he never mistakes volume or strain for passion.

But the architect of the “R&B thug” (variations on his design include Jaheim, Dave Hollister, Tank, and the slew of black R&B boy bands) also falls back on some of his most transparent gimmicks. T’ain’t no need to even talk about the disaster of the “I hate hatas and I’m really rich and misunderstood but real niggas love me” ditty “Been Around the World,” which features the ribbit-ribbit croak-rap singing of Ja Rule. On slow-jam songs like “Heart of a Woman,” Kelly serves up cloying, fake sensitivity predicated on the notion that men are intrinsically dogs while women are wired to be long-suffering saints. It’s apologia as a way of getting the panties, following in the tradition of such past Kelly con jobs as “When a Woman’s Fed Up” and “A Woman’s Threat.” In his apologies for all the wrongs that men have done and inevitably will do, he thinks he sounds enlightened and deep. In truth, he’s simply exercising the male’s oldest self-scribed loophole. To paraphrase: “I can’t help fucking up, it’s just the way I’m drawn. But it’s within you (woman) to forgive me, ’cause that’s your nature and I love you for that . . . girl.” Any woman dumb enough to fall for that bullshit probably needs cue cards to breathe.

The “R&B thug” is the evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) manifestation of another, more celebrated struggle of opposites in soul music. R&B is grown-up, refined, rooted in tradition and familiarity. The thug is wild, dangerous and unpredictable. The same basic formula applies to the uneasy union of sacred and profane that defines the music of men like Marvin Gaye, Prince and Donny Hathaway. And Al Green. On Chocolate, Kelly bows at the shrine of Green with “You Made Me Love You,” a bluesy, grinding number with simmering keyboards (courtesy of Rodney East) and an opening guitar riff that’s an abridged clone of the one jump-starting Green’s classic “Love & Happiness.”

Four Al Green albums recorded for Hi Records between 1968 and 1973 — Green Is Blues, Gets Next to You, Let’s Stay Together and I’m Still in Love With You — have just been re-released (digitally remastered, bonus tracks, etc.), and they serve as a reminder that he is one of the premier soul singers of all time. The fragility, loveliness and ache in his voice — longing that is both carnal and spiritual, with no need to differentiate between the two — brings tears to your eyes. Also made crystal clear is the brilliance of producer Willie Mitchell, who grew with (or melted into) Green to create a dazzling single entity. They were helped, of course, by an amazing band: guitarist Teenie Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges, organist Charles Hodges, and drummers Al Jackson and Howard Grimes. Working in a grimy old converted theater, this unit created elegant, haunting, sexy jazz/gospel/country/blues — a timeless flow of emotion both abstract and specific. Anchored in the stuff of everyday life (love, heartbreak, disappointment and those glimmers of happiness), the music they made transcends genre and language by acknowledging and capturing those aches and triumphs that echo in the deepest parts of ourselves. It’s the very definition of soul music.

R. KELLY | The Chocolate Factory | (Jive)

AL GREEN | classic reissues | (Hi)

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