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The sexual politics of R. Kelly

Robert Sylvester Kelly: The Man, The Myth, The Legend. Known to the musical world as R. Kelly, he is the prince of impropriety, sultan of smarm, a bastion of nasty beats. Sexy smatter aside, he is musically important: the Trapped in the Closet series stands as a 22-chapter hip hop era, redefining the artist’s relationship to the music video as well as his role as a lyricist. He will never fail to remind us that he is the “king of R&B,” churning out chart-toppers since 1991. Despite what his lyrics might lead you to believe, he makes modern-day R&B about more than just fucking – highlighting the drama and tensions of courtship and romance, unveiling the aggressive psychology of a highly sexualized alpha-male. “Real Talk,” an anthem with serious vibes, underlines the trials and tribulations Kelly experiences with his long-term loves, providing intense insight into his perception of normative gender roles in heterosexual relationships.

You might roll your eyes and think all this shit’s obvious – as if anyone with a radio, television, and a set of ears hasn’t picked up on rap and R&B’s aggressive commitment to sexually provocative subject matter.What makes Kellz so different from Usher or T-Pain? Aren’t “Love in the Club” or “Buy you a Drink” just as sexually forward as any ditty out of R. Kelly’s repertoire? Not even! Kellz makes explicit those things that artists like Usher glaze over with simple metaphors and polite euphemisms. Although Usher evidently wants to have a one-night stand with a girl on the dance floor, R. Kelly goes so far as to cement the fact that “this sex ain’t nothing / girl we be just fucking” in his single “Feeling on Yo’ Booty.”

Never has such blatant sexuality been so central to the success of any artist. 99.9 percent of Kelly’s songs are about having sex, thinking about sex, trying to get a girl to have sex with him, and what they do directly post-coitus. How many “meteor showers” girls will experience with him is something alluded to countless times in “Sex Planet.” In “Slow Wind,” he “can tell you want sex the way you flexin’;” “Sex Weed” is a literal combination of Kelly’s favourite things: “sex so good that it gets me high.”

Anyone who has downloaded R. Kelly’s discography as thoroughly as I have can tell you: Kellz is a PhReAk. His obsession with fucking girls – and women – has in the past been pathologized as nymphomania. Many of you might remember Kelly’s relatively recent incarceration and imprisonment following a “golden” sex-tape scandal featuring underage ladies in a special kind of shower.

Naively perusing his track titles, you might smile to see a celebration of liberated sexuality. However upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that R. Kelly is doing more to perpetuate gender roles than celebrate sexual freedom. One fateful day, I couldn’t help but falter. What if there is something wrong with “just a little bump’n’grind?”

Mariah Carey can help us answer this question. Although the two have never collaborated, R. Kelly and Mariah are well-suited contemporaries with similar musical prowess and longevity. The female complement to R. Kelly’s overtly masculine collection, Mariah Carey’s discography portrays a very specific notion of femininity that meshes interestingly with Kelly’s expression of male identity.

Carey is a sentimental sex kitten. Forget those pipes and sweet rhythms, all she wants is for the love of her life to “not forget about us” as she floats nude in her swimming pool, luxuriously displaying her monetary and physical wealth. For her, it’s “just like honey when your love comes over me,” and she can “hardly wait for another taste.” This depiction of a woman hopelessly hooked and totally addicted to the love of her man feeds the need of a dominating sex fiend like R. Kelly. Titles like “Love Takes Time,” I Don’t Wanna Cry,” and “Can’t Let Go” give me pause when contrasted with “Get Freaky in the Club,” “The Greatest Sex,” and “Kickin’ It with Your Girlfriend.” Another obvious point: women and men are portrayed in the media as processing and appreciating sexual relationships from vastly separate worlds. But it doesn’t have to be so binary!

This is a call for all girls, boys, and the genderqueer to listen to R. Kelly with a critical ear. I will be the first to attest to the beauty of Mariah Carey’s voice and the finesse of R. Kelly’s rhythms, but I don’t want to live in a world where we take all that Carey and Kelly have to tell us at face value – not just because it is mired with constraints and instills fear in my icy heart, but because it’s too easy. The masculine doesn’t have to thrive off sexual arousal, and the feminine shouldn’t be confined to the emotional; yin and yang ought to function collaboratively rather than in opposition to one another. When I hear Kellz whispering into my headphones: “Don’t you say no tonight,” I can’t help but argue.


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