R. Kelly has lost his mojo. He’s old, and he’s tired, and the sound and style he perfected are now flowing through the veins of more capable artists like The-Dream, Trey Songz and Usher. There’s nothing wrong with growing old, of course. Except when you think you’re still young.
With his first-ever mixtape, The Demo Tape, released last week, it is clear there is still only one R. Kelly. When it comes to his voice and style, he is a veteran on a court with rookies.
But is he relevant? Hosted by DJ Drama and DJ Skee, his mixtape posits that he’s as fresh as the day he came into the industry. Don’t they know it’s never good to be the 40-year-old awkwardly bopping at a sweet 16? And it’s especially bad when you’re R. Kelly.
Ever since Kelly was indicted on child pornography charges in 2002, his image has been tainted and the piss jokes rampant. Ex-disciples have vetoed his records, and his general aloofness (statements like, “What do you mean by ‘teenager’?”) does little to sway them. Some figured he would tone down the freak factor out of sensitivity after the scandal. Yet throughout he has kept his signature sexual innuendo and explicit content. Playing the triumphant survivalist, he’s dropped album after album, some excellent material, some stale: Chocolate Factory (2003), Happy People (2004), TP.3 Reloaded (2005), which included his outrageous “Trapped in the Closet” saga, and Double Up (2007).
But after a point it just gets disturbing. Listening to Kells croon as Lil Wayne croaks, “I wish I could fuck every girl in the world,” is downright creepy.
If you can get past the old man at the club vibe, it’s worth noting that Kelly still has a voice that’s robust, established and, most of all, influential. “These muhfuckas just wanna be like I, longev like , produce like I, write, sing, perform like I,” he boasts over Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On.”
The best songs on the mixtape—“Banging the Headboard,” “Club to a Bedroom” “Tip the Waiter” and “Supa Dupa”—are his typical “have your body screaming” joints. But there aren’t as many slow jams as there are songs reaffirming his dominance. A remix to The-Dream’s “Kelly’s 12 Play” is essentially R. Kelly singing about R. Kelly over a song about R. Kelly.
While promoting his pioneer status, Kells is willing to walk amongst his followers. The use of Auto-Tune is prevalent—inexplicably, since Kells can actually sing and it’s played out. And at the end of the “Best I Ever Had” remix he does this quick riff, “Mixtape, ah ah ah,” that sounds just like The-Dream. Many of the songs over which he vocalizes are by younger artists—Drake’s “Best I Ever Had,” Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On,” Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex,” and there’s also a collaboration, “Superman High,” with Atlanta rap newcomer O.J. Da Juiceman.
Sadly, his analogies on The Demo Tape are so sloppy you have to laugh. A sampling from various songs:
“The passion, the sex, girl, sick like a clinic.”
“Shorty’s screaming aaahh, like I got two in it.”
“Making your body shake like a horror movie.”
“Got the Bentley like a cabin, all wood.”
“I’m about to blow up in you like a hurricane.”
“Like I’m on the frontlines, a soldier’s gonna wait for ya.”
“Shorty I wanna be your present, girl unwrap me.”
Last year, R. Kelly released a remix to Raheem DeVaughn’s Dream-penned single “Customer,” a song about fast food turned freaky. Toward the end, Kelly sings, “Raheem, young fella, this song reminds me of something that I would do.” It’s an admirable co-sign that shows how much Kelly has inspired other singers with the long-form metaphor technique of his own brilliantly absurd singles like “You Remind Me of Something,” “Sex in the Kitchen” and “Ignition.”
There are few glorious instances like that on The Demo Tape. Minus the Auto-Tune, it’s not exactly a bad effort. Perhaps “not bad” is the best we can get from R. Kelly, whose next album, Untitled, is scheduled for release this year. Chances are, he’ll try to convince us again that he’s the same old R. But with his career and image permanently scarred, you have to wonder why anyone would want to be the old R. Kelly anymore. Least of all him.
Clover Hope is a writer based in New York City.