There are three kinds of readers who will pick up the new autobiography from R. Kelly: fans who want some explanation of the power Kelly holds over them, moralists who want to see how Kelly explains away his worst indiscretions, and people reading it as a joke. It's hard to imagine any of those groups being satisfied with this large-type, picture-filled volume.
There is plenty in Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me to support the notion that the self-described “Pied Piper” is one of the weirdest celebrities still with us. The writing occasionally reads like Kelly’s choicest lyrics in its mix of unbelievable silliness and complete sincerity. (Regarding his meeting with Michael Jackson’s pet monkey: “Bubbles pranced into the room. In my mind, I called Bubbles ‘Trouble.’ The chimp made me nervous.”)
But mostly, the book is an unrelentingly positive account of Kelly’s rise to superstardom. He makes a number of large claims, the biggest of which are all but unproveable, since they involve parties that aren’t alive or well enough to refute what’s written. Whether Kelly really did have plans to collaborate with Tupac Shakur, or whether his song “I Believe I Can Fly” made the Notorious B.I.G. weep, or whether Muhammad Ali really told him he had “Sam Cooke’s soul,” are all stories that will have to be taken with a grain of salt.
While the book goes into painstaking detail on how, say, Kelly found Jesus in his life, it doesn’t say much about the artist’s most damaging controversies. For example, there isn't a single word about his marriage to then-15-year-old singer Aaliyah. And when he does approach controversy, it’s in a defensive, remorseless way.
Kelly takes pains to rewrite the details of his infamous 2008 trial, in which he was accused of producing child pornography. Reading Josh Levin's addictive deconstruction of the trial for Slate magazine, the proceedings come across as a three-ring circus that concluded with a probable miscarriage of justice. But in the book, Kelly plays off the ordeal as though it was a minor distraction, dismissing his charges as “nuisance complaints.”
The overall tone of the book is an extension of what Kelly’s fans have come to expect from his persona –
his dance between the sacred and the profane, in which the singer straddles the styles of high-tenor worship music and a dangerous, hip-shaking seductive kind of R&B. Sometimes he manages this precarious balance within the same song.
Kelly has one of those unusual, truly unconditional relationships with fans, in that they forgive his public, potentially ruinous indiscretions, but they are also willing to follow him to difficult places artistically, as with his borderline insane "hip-hopera," Trapped in the Closet. While he was not the first artist to bring together the sensibilities of rap and R&B, Kelly has produced possibly the catchiest songs in that mode.
Ultimately, the most disappointing thing about Soulacoaster is the failure to explain how Kelly has maintained such a delicate balance. How does an illiterate ex-street performer become a genre-defining talent? Maybe there is no satisfying answer. Kelly writes a lot in the book about his gifts as a songwriter and singer, as though they were some kind of external force, something that comes to him from the divine, as in this passage from the chapter “Abducted by my Gift”: “Sometimes I feel like music has made love to me … I feel that I am pregnant by music, and it is the father and mother of my child.” He later refers to Trapped in the Closet as something that “crept up on me like an alien from another planet.”
In his review of tennis star Tracy Austin’s memoir in 1994, David Foster Wallace noted his disappointment at Austin’s “insipid” writing, before coming to terms with the idea that, “It may well be that spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate and animate the experience of the gift we are denied.”
It’s significant that Kelly describes sports and music as his two passions in life (he played basketball at a semi-professional level). He has the swagger of an athlete, but also the same kind of supernatural talent; a gift that comes to him, just beyond his articulation. Or perhaps Kelly is fully self-aware, and is simply holding it all back. Maybe he’s a lot savvier than the culture that treats him like a weird joke.
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on Jul 16, 2012