Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Good Morning Little School Girl

Taking a manifestly skillful, manifestly simplistic oeuvre seroiusly now that it's news

My mind's telling me no
But my body, my body's telling me yes
Baby, I don't want to hurt nobody
But there is something that I must confess

--R. Kelly, "Bump n' Grind"

The sudden respectability of R. Kelly the artist is a confounding development in official pop taste. Child pornography charges have done for this manifestly skillful, manifestly simplistic hitmaker what the preeminent inspirational anthem of the '90s could not. That his fans still believe he can fly is no surprise. But for Chocolate Factory to show up on dozens of critics' Top 10 lists, including three in The New York Times, suggests less that Kelly has responded to his legal dilemma (and fees) with the strongest music of his life, as is commonly argued, than that an oeuvre few gatekeepers felt obliged to take seriously is now hot news, and that credit must be given where it's due.

In September, seven months after Chocolate Factory, the oeuvre was showcased in all its dualistic synergy on The R. in R&B Collection: Volume 1, which makes its move with the porn-lite triptych "Bump n' Grind," "Your Body's Callin'," and "Sex Me" and finds spiritual fulfillment by preceding "I Believe I Can Fly" with "I'm Your Angel," a Celine Dion duet beloved of wedding singers, and Ali's "The World's Greatest," where Kelly compares himself to an eagle, a lion, a mountain peak, a marching band, a star ("up in the sky"), and "the people." Those of the intervening 12 songs in which he achieves orgasm substantially outnumber those in which he does not. Although several of the orgasms involve affection and one commitment, you'd never guess from The R. in R&B that Chocolate Factory had just bum-rushed the populace with woman-friendly rhetoric--pledges of devotion and other idealistic fancies, individualized sexual flattery, and an abject token in which Kelly not only ranks female "backbone" above male "bullshit" but allows as how said bullshit may be why women smoke cigarettes and snap off on their kids. What you would guess, because it's on the compilation too, is that Chocolate Factory's lead single was the Saturday-night special "Ignition--Remix" ("stick my key in the ignition," etc.). Nor would you gasp when Chocolate Factory reversed the best-of's narrative strategy, closing with the Kelly-vs.-Isley cuckolding contest "Showdown," the Orientalist sex fantasy "Snake," and some pimp-and-thug--how'd he put it?--bullshit.

But the clincher is the pitiful "Heaven I Need a Hug," on a bonus disc now available only as an import: "I gave 13 years of my life to this industry," "Media, do your job/But please just don't make my job so hard," boo hoo. I know the music is one thing and the life is another, only I also know that in pop they rarely are. "Heaven I Need a Hug" assumes the listener knows about Kelly's tribulations--the video where some supposed 15-year-old sucks Kelly's dick and he comes on her and pisses on her too, not to mention his annulled marriage to the 15-year-old Aaliyah and the lawsuits from other underage girls Kelly allegedly, to use his term, sexed. It underlines a crucial distinction, which is that whether or not Kelly is legally guilty of doing these things, they feed into how he is perceived. Which means that when, on his hugely engaging "Step in the Name of Love--Remix," Kelly declares himself "the pied piper of r&b" ("king" was once his preferred title), his failure to think through the pedophilic implications is cavalier, stupid, or both.

Not that anyone should suspect Kelly of pedophilia per se, because teenagers aren't children per se. His turn-on is a far commoner one--the virgin who craves your penis. This fetish has a long history in rock and roll. Its ur-text is "Good Morning Little School Girl"--attributed to Sonny Boy Williamson I and covered by, among many others, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, the Yardbirds, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Taj Mahal, Johnny Winter, an elderly Van Morrison, and 16-year-old Jonny Lang--and its permutations are endless. Most relevant here is the way modern boy groups typified by Boyz II Men developed the love-man idea traceable to Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass, and evolved doowoppers like the Moments and the Manhattans. There's a difference between teenage boys seducing teenage girls and young studs seducing teenage girls, and Boyz II Men dare you to figure out what it is. They're polite and lubricious in equal measure, role models who'll never call that sweet young thing again.

Still, they were more teen-appropriate than 2 Live Crew, or Ice Cube's "Givin' Up the Nappy Dug Out." And in jumped Kelly, a clever beat popularizer who encapsulated his vision with "I Like the Crotch on You." Kelly soon warmed up his voice, hooked up his tunes, and on 1995's R. Kelly played up the woman-friendly. But he also kissed thug booty, and no one did more to sexualize pop language and assumptions in the '90s. He made the Backstreet Boys reaction inevitable, and if he was too lightweight to loathe--I myself am partial to the dumb double entendres of "You Remind Me of Something" ("my sound, I wanna pump it," "my cars, I wanna wax it")--he was also too lightweight to feel. That's why I gave R. Kelly a nice review and forgot about it, why I filed 2000's TP-2.Com.

All love men lie. As ideals, alternatives, their lies can be healthy sometimes. But no matter how much Kelly has bared his soul, expanded his palette, and seen the error of his ways, his lies smell like the foulest bullshit. Giving credit where it's due, I hope he goes broke.

Village Voice, Jan. 27, 2004