He pleads. He prays. He scolds. He repents, kind of.
We've heard it all before, of course, though now the stakes are a bit higher. On R. Kelly's new album, Chocolate Factory (Jive), released Tuesday, the R&B star isn't oblivious to the world of trouble he's in. On the contrary, he tries to sing his way out of it with his most traditional-sounding album yet, from its Al Green- and Marvin Gaye-inspired ballads to its steppin' dance mixes.
Kelly was indicted last year in Chicago on 21 counts of child pornography, and faces 12 more counts on similar charges after a recent arrest in Florida. His songs were pulled from radio playlists, and hip-hop peers such as Jay-Z and Nas publicly distanced themselves from him. The Best of Both Worlds, a joint album with Jay-Z, flopped, and in autumn, Jive scrapped a finished Kelly solo album, Loveland. After multimillion-sellers such as 12 Play, R. Kelly and R., with its inspirational anthem "I Believe I Can Fly," established him as the biggest R&B singer of the '90s, Kelly found his career in danger of bottoming out.
Yet a few weeks ago, Kelly resurfaced with "Ignition," the first single from Chocolate Factory, and radio embraced it. It's been issued in a couple of formats: a slow grind ballad of the sort Kelly specializes in and an uptempo remix. The song's opening line - "Let me stick my key in your ignition, babe" - is indicative of its subject matter, a salacious account of love-making in the back seat of a car. It rose to No. 2 on the R&B chart, a major hit in urban markets nationwide.
"No matter how terrible what R. Kelly has or hasn't done is, all radio hears is a hit record," said Dontay Thompson, R&B editor at industry trade publication Radio & Records. "Considering what he's being accused of, the content of the song is questionable, and I had doubts how it would be received. But he has a big fan base that still wants to hear good music from him, and undeniably this is a good record."
Though "Ignition" resorts to a lame laundry list of automobile cliches - Prince's "Little Red Corvette" with a few cylinders missing - the remix leaves tread marks on the imagination with its nursery-rhyme interjections and Jamaican inflections. It ushers in an album that, by Kelly's standards, is PG-rated overall for lyrical content. But celebrity watchers scanning Chocolate Factory for howlers won't be disappointed. There are a few moments when the disconnect between Kelly's lyrics and his sordid legal troubles becomes disturbing, no more so than when he refers to himself as the "pied piper of R&B" in "Step in the Name of Love," a reference to the fairy-tale figure who enticed a village full of children away from their parents.
"Anything you want, you just come to daddy," Kelly purrs in the album's opening seconds. "You're the mama and I'm the dada," he raps on "Snake."
"In the midst of this fame my life is like a buffet: Quick to drink, quick to smoke, quick to fornicate," he fesses up on "Apologies of a Thug."
Of course, Kelly has always trafficked in such outrageousness, mixing soft-porn innuendoes with crying jags about his late mother, God and his own fallibility. In the past, these jumbled passions suggested a dark side to Kelly's life just beneath the surface of his enormous public successes.
Now, however, Kelly's dark side is fodder for talk shows and tabloids and has been documented by his accusers in police files and court documents. Whether he's guilty has yet to be determined, and on parts of Chocolate Factory Kelly sounds like he's preparing his defense as he scolds his accusers, musters apologies and enlists high-profile pals such as Ronald Isley, Fat Joe and Ja Rule as character witnesses. It's public relations of the sort that one-time notorious bad boys like Eminem and Ice Cube have mastered, fashioning a monstrous persona and then softening it to maximize sales and build empathy. Of course, CDs aren't real life. But the subtext for this one makes it sound like musical spin control, a public-relations manifesto as much as an R&B album.
"God will judge me the same as he judges you," Kelly informs all the "playa haters" and "fake friends" in "Been Around the World," while the burlap-voiced Ja Rule sounds like he's about to break into a sob of sympathy: "It's a cold, cold world."
The remorse pose takes a bizarre twist on "Heaven I Need a Hug," from the Loveland bonus CD, a mini-opera so over-the-top it could kill a career all by itself. The singer makes his case at heaven's gate to God, seeks out advice from his mother and finally catches a break from Jesus. All that's missing is a blessing from the pope and an exclusive Diane Sawyer interview.
With Chocolate Factory Kelly is forcing his fans to choose: Buy me (the album, the remorse, the alibis) or abandon me. But even some of Kelly's fans probably wish he'd just quietly go away for a while and let justice run its course.
Greg Kot is a popular-music critic for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
`Chocolate Factory (Jive Records) * *