R Kelly is a changed man. It's 1 a.m. deep in the mountains in Canyon Country, Calif. The R&B superstar--best known for graphic pillow talk like "Your Body's Callin'" and "Freak Dat Body"--is shooting a video for a new ballad called "You Remind Me of Something." The video is meant to showcase Kelly's sensitive side, and it finds him lounging comfortably in silk pajamas on a gold-plat-ed chair while a young woman in black lingerie feeds him grapes. "You remind me of my Jeep," he sings. "I wanna ride ya." R. Kelly is a changed man--but he hasn't changed that much.
The singer is best known for the explicit lyrics on last year's multiplatinum album "12 Play." The title of Kelly's wonderfully craven single "Bump and Grind" became a catch phrase in urban communities, and won the sensually bald singer a legion of female fans ready and willing to fluff his pillow. Now, with a self-titled album due out, the 28-year-old has love and death--as well as sex--on his brain. "The bump-and-grind period of my life was just a mood," he says. "I've been through a lot in the last two years and I've learned a lot about myself. You can't stay stuck in one groove."
The new album may surprise the singer's hard-core followers. "R. Kelly" isn't as funky as "12 Play," and it's clearly influenced by producer-of-the-moment Sean (Puffy) Combs. Still, the album is lush, dreamy and romantic. Kelly also works in a driving rap that features The Notorious B.I.G. and a moving gospel tribute to his mother that was arranged by gospel trail-blazer Kirk Franklin. Kelly's mother died of cancer in 1993, and there are moments of real pain here, including a short track on which Kelly sings, to the accompaniment of the ocean, "Heaven, if you hear me / I need you / Please come back home."
Kelly began performing while he was going to junior high on the South Side of Chicago, influenced by Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway. He knew he'd found his calling after a talent show in which he donned shades and a brown suit to sing Stevie Wonder's classic "Ribbon in the Sky." "That night it was like Spiderman being bit," says Kelly. "I discovered the power you get from being onstage." In 1990 a music executive discovered Kelly while he was singing at a barbecue. "We were all outside just talking and eating and I heard this guy singing songs I'd never heard before," says Wayne Williams of Jive Records. "He was singing original material and he had dance steps to match--all at a small backyard barbecue. You had to be impressed." Kelly's debut, "Born Into the 90s," sold more than a million copies. But it was with "12 Play" that he became a super-star--if a controversial one.
First, there were the widely circulated rumors that Kelly had married 16-year-old R&B singer Aaliyah. (His handlers won't allow reporters to broach the subject.) Then there were the risque concerts. Kelly's hugely successful 1994 tour included barely clad women in cages, not to mention a finale in which he pulled his pants down, a la Marvin Gaye. Fans loved it. Critics hated it. New York's Village Voice said Kelly's material had "the sensitivity of a porno loop."
Kelly says he wasn't fazed by the flak--that he wasn't even hurt when he was snubbed by both the Grammys and the American Music Awards, which failed to give him a single nomination. "People are allowed to think what they want, and I have a right to sing about what I want," he says, relaxing in the lavender tour bus he takes everywhere because he's afraid of flying. "I wouldn't say my music is raunchy--just sexually aware. Criticizing me is like criticizing the evening news for showing what's really going on."
"12 Play" got the attention of Janet Jackson, who asked Kelly to remix one of her singles, and her brother Michael, who recorded Kelly's ballad "You Are Not Alone." The song recently debuted at No. 1--a first in the history of the Billboard chart. "Michael came to Chicago to work with me," says Kelly, beaming. "It's amazing to know that five years ago I was writing songs in a basement in the ghetto and now I'm writing for Michael Jackson. I'd be a fool not to say it's a dream come true."
Kelly has also written four tracks for diva Toni Braxton's forthcoming album and contributed to Quincy Jones's new project, an album called "Q's Jook Joint." The singer still lives on the South Side, and visits Los Angeles and New York only when absolutely necessary. He says his preferred release is playing basketball. Kelly travels with a hoop and roll-out court everywhere he goes, including the Canyon Country video set, so he can unwind during breaks. Like the other Michael he idolizes (Jordan, of course), he never misses the opportunity for a slam dunk-on the boards or on the charts.