Pop Culture

R. Kelly may be ‘Trapped’ but he's not hiding

You’d think that R. Kelly would be on his best behavior.

With the Michael Jackson trial still fresh in people’s minds, and being embroiled in his own sex scandal, R. Kelly should be putting out stuff that is safe as milk. But his newest release, “TP.3 Reloaded”, shows that Kelly is back to his old self — turning his libido loose in his music.

In other words, lots of songs about sex. Songs about sex in the kitchen. Songs dedicated to pelvis whirling island women, and bootylicious club chicks. Songs about sex with someone else, about sex on the down low.

“If R. Kelly didn’t make that kind of sexually charged music he would lose a lot of fans,” said Erik Parker, Music Editor for Vibe Magazine. “On this album, he is making the music he knows how to make best.”

And, it seems, the music his fans love best. TP.3 has racked up impressive sales numbers. It  debuted at No. 1 on both the Billboard Album 200 and R&B/hip-hop charts, It’s the Grammy-winning Kelly’s fifth No. 1 album.

Songs like “Sex Weed” and “Playas Only” (which features a cameo from top selling rapper The Game) make last year’s double album, “Happy People/U Saved Me” seem like a temporary detour. The double album, half retro-sounding soul music (inspired by Chicago’s “steppin’ party tradition), half glossy contemporary gospel, downplayed his Lothario image.

On that album, Kelly seemed to be reacting to the firestorm of controversy around his teenage sex scandal, reaching into the past on one disc, playing up his church roots on the other. Here, however, Kelly seems to have put all the controversy behind him, which seems difficult to believe, considering that his legal problems have not been resolved yet. Kelly is charged with 14 counts of child pornography stemming from allegations that he videotaped himself having sex with an underage girl. A trial date has been not been set yet.

Kelly knows his audience
But then again, Kelly has no reason to act repentant (at least not anymore), since there is a hardcore of music fans that will always buy his records.

“R. Kelly is one of those artists that has a certain effect on people” said Parker. “There are people who will always love him, and there are those that will always hate him.”

And there are some in the listening public who don’t have R. Kelly on the radar at all, mostly because Kelly has built his success on an almost entirely black fan base (some feel that this has kept Kelly’s legal troubles from dominating the public eye the way Jackson’s did).  “R. Kelly isn’t like someone like 50 Cent, who crosses over heavily to the white audience,” Parker said. “He doesn’t have a lot of white kids in the suburbs listening to his music. He represents black music in a way that almost no one else does.”

Take the first single from the new album, for example. “Trapped In the Closet Chapter 1”, uses the same “singing narrative”  technique as past Kelly hits like “Down Low” , one which comes across as overwrought to some in the pop audience, yet goes over a storm with the urban listener.

“Trapped”  is an urban soap opera told from the perspective of a cheating man, sung/played by Kelly. Part of a five-part storyline (all five parts are included on the CD, and bonus DVD) “Trapped” has it all — a forbidden lover hiding in the closet from a jealous lover, who turns out to be a man of the cloth. And then there’s the part when the pastor brings his lover into the room and ... well, we won’t spoil it for you.

“I think musically he could have taken the whole idea a little further,” said Parker. “But for sheer entertainment and communication value it’s great.”

That’s especially true for some elements of Kelly’s urban audience.

“What makes Kelly different from most R&B singers is that he has a lot of male fans, in addition to female fans. Part of it is how he presents himself. A lot of soul singers pander to the women when they sing. R, Kelly speaks from an unapologetic male perspective, which really resonates with that part of the listenership. That’s what makes him unique.”

Kelly has already shot chapters 6-10 of the “Trapped” saga. The release date has not been announced.

Tony Green is a freelance writer who covers R&B and rap/hip-hop music and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.

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