The Teflon Pop Star

People who know R. Kelly tend to use the same word to describe him: unflappable. Last June, the Chicago-based R&B singer was arrested and indicted on 21 counts of possession of child pornography, after a copy of tapes allegedly showing him having sex with a young girl was sent to the Chicago Sun-Times. He promptly locked himself in his private studio, completed two new albums and produced several hit songs for other stars. This January, just after he was arrested again in Florida and charged with 12 more child-porn counts--same girl from the same incident, different poses--he played the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey. He made a typically grand entrance: in a skybox above 20,000 heads, his arms stretched out as if nailed to a cross. The standing ovation lasted nearly five minutes.

No one, either inside the music industry or out of it, could have predicted this. R. Kelly, whose 1996 "I Believe I Can Fly" has been the anthem of thousands of graduations, was supposed to be a hip-hop Pee-wee Herman. Instead, as he awaits trial--sometime later this year--his new album, "Chocolate Factory," has sold 2 million copies. "I can't lie--I didn't see this coming,'' says Stephen Hill, VP of music programming for Black Entertainment Television. "I think many of us in the industry thought it was over for him--it was on tape.'' And whatever you think of the singer--who declined NEWSWEEK's request for an interview--the music deserves the attention. It's one of his best albums to date, seamlessly fusing hip-hop and R&B, with heart-wrenching love songs reminiscent of his musical idols, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye.

For Kelly's fans, the music is enough. "If you ask me if I want to be somewhere with him alone--I'd say no," says 17-year-old Tanisha Owens of Compton, Calif. "But if you ask me if I love his music--the answer is yes.'' Luther Jefferson, an 11th grader at L.A.'s Morningside High School, says he has no problem. "If that cat that raped that 13-year-old girl and ran to another country like a b---h can win an Oscar," he says, "why can't R. Kelly sell albums?" And for record executives, that's show business. "This industry is about the bottom line,'' says one. "They're not going to rock the boat on a moneymaker."

Kelly, 34, has long been suspected to like underage girls. He married the late singer Aaliyah when he was 27--and she was 15. (The pair denied it, but several hip-hop --publications published the marriage certificate, which falsely gave her age as 18.) Sources close to Aaliyah say the marriage was dissolved by her family. Kelly's label, Jive Records, was rumored to have put a morality clause in his contract, though a spokesperson for the label denies this.

After the 2002 scandal, bootlegged copies of an explicit video supposedly showing Kelly and the young girl were sold on street corners and available on the Internet. Church groups and regular citizens across the country fought to get the singer's songs taken off the radio. But Kelly kept making hits, and the industry kept looking the other way. If Jive hesitated when it came time for "Chocolate Factory," it wasn't for long. "We probably overanalyzed it in the beginning," says Jive president Barry Weiss. "But then we just decided to go with it in the same way we always have. The music was great, and we realized that Robert represents so many things to the people who are his core audience. His songs remind them of things that have happened in their lives, and therefore he's a part of their lives. Nothing changes that.''

Some parents still believe that allegations as ugly as these actually change everything. BET is currently airing Kelly's latest video, "Ignition"--"Let me put my key in your ignition," etc.--and fielding complaints from such viewers as Carla Thomas, 46, of Atlanta, the single mother of two teenage girls. "I was like, 'I can't believe this after what this guy did','' says Thomas. "I mean, we went through this with Mike Tyson where we just ignored the rape charge against him--and he's crazier than ever. We can't protect these guys, and we shouldn't when they're hurting our young girls.'' BET executives say they debated whether or not to air the video. "We'd never had a situation like this before," says programming director Hill. "We just waited for the song to hit the charts and measured the response from that. When the song became a hit--we played the video.''

The Rev. Otis Moss III, 31, of Augusta, Ga., who regularly preaches to the hip-hop generation, makes no excuses for Kelly, but sees no point in boycotting him. "Clearly he is ill and needs help, but it's not as simple as turning our back on him," he says. "If anybody should be boycotted it should be the companies that allowed this to go on when they knew he was endangering young lives.'' Moss suspects that Kelly's gotten a pass because his core audience is weary of accusations against black men. "You have to assume that many people didn't see the tape, and that many of the kids are too young to understand what happened,'' he says. "Couple that with blacks' lack of trust in the legal system and you see why they would have significant doubts.''

Those may or may not be resolved when Kelly comes to trial. He's charged only with child pornography, not statutory rape, because the girl in question has refused to press charges. Still, if convicted he could spend significant time behind bars. Meanwhile, he's still tending unflappably to business. "Robert works all the time," says Regina Daniels, a longtime friend, "and that hasn't stopped. The studio is his escape." He just finished producing an album for another musical hero, Ronald Isley, with whom he now wants to make a film. "Robert is like a son to me," says Isley. "I give him advice all the time about any and everything. Robert is a wonderful guy, a genius of his time. It'll be tough, but he'll get through it." Believe it or not--like it or not--he just may.