Last month, I went to a karaoke night at a crowded Philadelphia bar. The drinks were cheap, the songs flowed. Early in the night, a fellow patron delivered a reverent, note-perfect version of R. Kelly's "Step in the Name Of Love," a pillowy 2003 ode to nights out.
What most surprised me wasn't the quality of the performance. But the eagerness with which the crowd sang along, even with the ad-libs at the end, flummoxed me, as though the quality of the song was enough to excuse the sins of its maker. R. Kelly was still cool, turns out, so long as we didn't have to think about him.
I guess I wasn't too surprised: Kelly has been great at writing and singing infectious tracks at least since the "My mind is telling me no-oooohhh, but my body, my bodyyyyy" outburst that opened the chart-topping "Bump n' Grind" two decades ago. The best parts of Kelly's discography—and he hits high notes not just within songs but within his catalog, too—combine big hooks, celestial singing chops, and intense sexual energy. That last quality simmers during the humming "Taxi Cab," but goes on full display for metaphor-rich offerings like "Sex in the Kitchen."
The song's references—"Cutting up tomatoes, fruits and vegetables and potatoes"—hint at Kelly's flair for the ridiculous, a staple of his discography. He's long ventured into weirdness, as with the "Trapped in the Closet" saga.
Those flights of fancy have taken on a much more sinister feel recently. In last month's winding, evasive interview with GQ, he denied knowing Dave Chappelle. And his defense of Bill Cosby—"When I look on TV and I see the 70-, 80-, 90-year-old ladies talking about what happened when they were 17, 18, or 19, there's something strange about it."—went viral just like the forty-five-minute song he once freestyled about his life, for all the wrong reasons. He called the women who claim he abused them liars, too.
According to Chicago music journalist Jim DeRogatis, these young, mostly black women were sexually assaulted, their stories subsequently buried by expensive cover-ups. But Kelly wouldn't hear it. "Look, if I break up with a girl, and she don't wanna break up, and I'm R. Kelly, she's gonna be pissed," he told GQ, excusing himself by claiming superiority. He said plenty more, but you get the gist.
Despite all this, the appeal of going to an R. Kelly show is obvious, and the karaoke performance in Philadelphia offered a mini-class in why: He's a master showman. He can sing. He knows how to wink at the audience and how to get serious. He can pace a show, bring the audience in, and then leave while they still want more. The last time I saw him, he had a bar and bartender onstage. He knows how to make his audience enjoy itself.
But since DeRogatis aired out his full reporting on Kelly, letting everyone know how bad the situation with the singer had been, I've had a hard time listening to his music, even though I was putting albums like Love Letter and Write Me Back on my annual best-of lists only five years ago. But I have yet to hit Play on his latest album, The Buffet, and I probably never will, even though it's apparently a strong enough R. Kelly album. I've decided to let the stories of those young girls echo in my head, not another batch of sex anthems by the brilliant singer and deeply vexing human who has never adequately reckoned with their accusations.
Sorry, R. Kelly, but I just can't sing or play along anymore.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stepped (In the Name of Love)"