Where To Start With... R. Kelly
Sometimes brilliant, often controversial, always entertaining; R. Kelly has spent the last two decades confounding and delighting fans and critics in equal measure. From his emergence on the 90s R&B scene alongside acts like New Edition, Heavy D and Boyz II Men, to the grandiose, sprawling 'hip-hopera' that is 'Trapped in the Closet', R.Kelly has - for one reason or another – always stood apart from his peers.
Born and raised as Robert Sylvester Kelly on the south side of Chicago, Kelly honed his talents performing on the city's streets before getting his big break on a national talent show with his group, R. Kelly & Public Announcement, whose debut album helped define a new R&B sound. By 1993, R. Kelly had scored his first Number One single on the Billboard charts with 'Bump n' Grind' and a year later was producing hits for the likes of Aaliyah. Even while his controversial relationship with the young singer generated headlines, hits like 'Age Ain't Nothing but a Number' generated sales and, by the mid-90s, monster-sized hits like 'I Believe I Can Fly' had turned Kelly into the undisputed king of R&B, a position he would hold until he was arguably usurped at the beginning of the next decade by the likes of The Neptunes.
By then, R. Kelly had turned his considerable ambitions to writing music for films, making contributions to the soundtracks for Batman & Robin and Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, some of which received mixed reactions from critics, who wondered whether he was becoming a bit overblown. Then came 'Trapped in the Closet'.
Reactions to this magnum opus ranged from awe and wonder to amusement and even ridicule; a full opera, complete with video and weighing in at a staggering 33 chapters, it's undoubtedly one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted by an R&B artist and one that nobody but R. Kelly could even attempt, let alone pull off. But that's why he's R. Kelly.
He is, if nothing else, unique. He's also very prolific; the 22 years that have passed since his debut album have produced 12 studio albums, not including collaborations, plus a host of TV & film appearances and an autobiography, published in 2012, entitled Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me. He's also lost none of his ability to generate controversy, as proved by the filth-laden lyrics to some of the tracks on his last album, Black Panties, although it did mark a return to form and is arguably one of his best records for years.
His thirteenth album The Buffet arrives this week (you can preview and purchase it on the right-hand side of this page) and continues the good work, with a range of stylistic influences from the vintage soul vibes of 'Backyard Party' to the staccato violins and trap beats of the Lil' Wayne-featuring banger 'Switch-Up'. Fans who enjoyed his last outing will find plenty to enjoy here too.
You can find the video for 'Backyard Party' below, beneath that we've picked out five key tracks for new initiates to the work of one of R&B's most singular talents.
'She's Got That Vibe'
One of his breakthrough hits, this is a proper party track and typical of R. Kelly's sound early in on in his career. As the video below shows, even back then he had an eye for cinematic presentation.
'Bump n' Grind'
His first solo hit to to the Billboard Hot 100, 'Bump n' Grind remains one of the singer's defining moments. Smooth, just a little sleazy and the perfect showcase for that voice. Altogether now: “My mind's telling me no, but my body...”
Featuring on his 2003 album Chocolate Factory, this is without doubt one of R. Kelly's most popular tracks, but those who remember it's release will also probably remember thinking 'wait, if this is the remix, where's the original?' Well, there's a reason for that – the original version was written a year earlier about the media's reaction to a sex tape featuring the singer, which, it was wisely decided, should remain under lock and key for the time being. So we got this instead, and it's great.
'Trapped in the Closet (Chapter 1)'
If R. Kelly is to be remembered for one thing, it should be this. The first excerpt from his epic opera, the video for Chapter 1 of 'Trapped in the Closet' set the internet ablaze and the sound of jaws dropping could be heard from Los angeles to London. We're still not sure if this counts as a win or not, but there is simply nothing else like this, anywhere.
Our last inclusion should, ordinarily, be slapped with a big old 'NSFW' tag, but some brave soul attempted a radio edit of this downright filth-laden track from Black Panties. As you'll see, once the really filthy bits re removed there isn't much left of the lyric, but that just gives you all the more space to appreciate that bassline.