Legacy is a complicated word when it comes to R. Kelly.
On one hand, he's one of the most popular and influential R&B artists of the past 30 years, a compulsively prolific singer-songwriter-producer who's given the world generation-defining slow jams like I Believe I Can Fly, Bump N' Grind and Ignition (Remix).
On the other are allegations of unsavory sexual behavior that have dogged his entire career — charges of child pornography, out-of-court settlements with underage accusers, even a marriage to a teenage Aaliyah. The marriage was annulled, and Kelly's never been convicted of a sex crime, but his mottled reputation has proven difficult to purify.
But ask Robert Sylvester Kelly himself what he thinks of his legacy, and he goes off in a third, more personal direction.
"My legacy is not about me anymore," Kelly said Tuesday, calling from a tour bus en route to Florida, where on Friday he'll perform at Tampa's Amalie Arena. "It's really about my children, man. Everything I do now is really about my kids, and making sure they're straight. It's really about holding onto that legacy, making it stronger, growing my brand, and allowing my shelter to continue to stay over my kids and the people that I love."
At 49, Kelly is doing that with a new album, The Buffet, that's among the most sonically adventurous of his career, and a tour he says matches it vision for vision.
"It's almost like a circus, man," he said. "And that's what I wanted it to be, because it's called the Buffet Tour. You know, you go to a buffet, you can pile your plate with a lot of different things. That's what this is musically."
Kelly sounded upbeat and energized during our 15-minute interview, though his legal history remains touchy turf. When I brought up a January interview with GQ, in which Kelly spoke openly about all those awful allegations, his publicist swooped in, insisting we steer the conversation back to music. So if you've come looking for a thorough exhumation of Kelly's past — including a 2003 arrest in Florida on charges, later dropped, of possessing child pornography — you will not find it here.
But Kelly did speak about his family, his music, his penchant for mystery and, yes, his legacy. He also talked about Space Jam 2, his fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper and his never-ending audiovisual saga Trapped in the Closet.
Here's the bulk of our conversation, edited slightly for length and clarity.
I never thought I'd have the opportunity to interview you. I've always seen you as somebody who never did many interviews. But it seems like maybe you're doing more press for The Buffet. Is that true? Do you feel like you're opening up to the press at all?
I always do most of my press when I have a project. I never really liked the limelight like that. I just really love being in the lab, doing my music, sort of like a mad scientist. Instead of just running my mouth all the time, I'd rather just talk when I've got something to present, and I know that people are going to be very excited about, and talk about for a long time.
Much of your life story isn't laid out super-cleanly. I feel like that benefits a lot of artists — maybe there's a bit of mystery about who you really are. Does that benefit or hinder you when you present an album like The Buffet?
If you look back on my career, I've been in the business successfully for almost 30 years now. So I think it benefits me. But more than it benefits me, it benefits my kids. My kids are able to go to school and have the things that I couldn't have when I was younger.
As far as the mysterious thing, Batman's mysterious. Every hero has some type of mask. You understand? So I'm cool with that. I'm absolutely cool with that.
Was there a desire with this album to tear down ideas of "what you thought you knew about R. Kelly?" Because it's an adventurous album. It goes places you don't expect.
You know, man, I'm the type of guy that loves for the universe to surprise me. That's pretty much how I am when it comes to my music. It's random. You can only expect the unexpected when it comes to R. Kelly, because I do have a gift, and I'm not just a talented person. There's a difference between when you're talented and you're gifted. And I have a gift. I'm blessed to be able to go through different genres of all styles of music. My mission is to show the world that I'm not just the king of R&B or anything. I'm trying to be one of the kings of music, because I love all types of people, and I want all types of people to love my music. In order for me to do that, I have to put on my different genre outfits, and show people I can do pop. I love pop music. I love R&B. I love country. I love gospel. I love inspirational music, with I Believe I Can Fly. And I don't know how much longer I gotta be doing this to prove to people that I'm not just a guy to just do R&B music. I love music. I am music.
When you branch out from straight R&B, do you labor over those songs more? Are they harder to get out, or is it all sort of stream-of-consciousness?
Everything I write, man, comes to me. I don't never chase a song or try to push a song. It just comes to my head, and if it just feels good in my head, and it sounds good in my ears, I gotta go in the studio, and I gotta lay it down. For instance: I heard they were doing a new Space Jam movie. People have been calling me up, saying, Are you gonna be a part of that? Are you gonna be a part of that? And I don't know. I didn't ever get a call. But I got to say this: I went into the studio and wrote two smashes for it. So put that out there, okay? (laughs)
Your songs are simultaneously sexy and funny. I don't know if you intend to make the listener blush with laughter, but it happens a lot in your music.
I'm like this, man: When I'm writing my songs, it's almost like I'm flirting with women around the world. And when you're flirting with women, man, you gotta be funny. You can be sexy, but you got to be funny. If you can't make them laugh, then you're pretty much gonna bomb out. You're not gonna get 'em. So when I write my songs, I try to throw the sexiness in there, but at the same time, try to be humorous, just to break the ice.
It's interesting, because there's this strain of R&B right now — the Weeknd, Miguel, Bryson Tiller, Travis Scott, whoever you want to name — that's a lot darker, more psychological, more serious. I can hear your influence there, but it's not quite as obvious, because there's not as much lightness in a lot of those songs. Do you relate to that world of R&B at all?
Absolutely. I stay studyin' everybody, watching over everybody, to continue to keep my musical path clear. You're not gonna ever be a great leader until you can become an even greater follower. I'm always following, and that keeps me leading.
What about Chance the Rapper? He's a Chicago guy. His new album's got a real gospel sensibility that seems en vogue right now, and which seems derived in a lot of ways from some of the music you've done over the years.
I've worked with Chance. That's like my little brother, man. And let me tell you something, that's a very, very talented guy. He's a genius, hands down. He reminds me of myself when I was his age, because yeah, I did have gospel chords and things like that, but I was singing Bump N' Grind. I didn't try to do it. It's just something that's in him. He's a very gifted guy. He hears music the way nobody else hears it, so you gotta respect that. And he makes it work.
Just looking at this year, and the albums that Kanye West and Chance and Rihanna and Beyonce have put out, they're all sonically different than anything they've done before. You can throw in The Buffet, too. It seems like this is a good time to try something new in that world that nobody's tried before.
And believe me, I'm working on it. I feel like I'm a scientist of music. I'm always mixing different potions and elements together, man, and trying to create something new for the world to do. I've done that throughout my career, with Trapped in the Closet. I've got 40 more chapters coming out that I've just finished. I'm continuing to mix up these potions, man, and just continue to feed people this music.
How many unreleased songs are you sitting on?
I read that after Prince died, there was enough music in his vault to release an album a year for like 100 years. I've got to think that you've got a similar vault, whether it's an actual physical vault, or just lyrics and production notes somewhere. Do you think the world's ever gonna hear everything that you've written?
Yeah. I've written songs for children I haven't even had yet, because I know they're gonna be able to sing. The duets are there; all they have to do is sing their part. (laughs)
Between Prince and Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, it's like a whole generation of music has almost been wiped out. Who are the keepers of that flame now, of this generation right before you? Who's left that we should be appreciating more than maybe we currently do?
I would say Ronald Isley is one. Charlie Wilson is another. They're still doing it. Lionel Richie is touring like crazy. He's doing it. I don't care what's on the radio today; I love hip hop and everything else. But these people I just named, these people's music is forever. Until Jesus comes back.
How important is your legacy to you? Do you think about what your legacy is going to be?
My legacy is not about me anymore. It's really about my children, man. Everything I do now is really about my kids, and making sure they're straight. It's really about holding onto that legacy, making it stronger, growing my brand, and allowing my shelter to continue to stay over my kids and the people that I love.
It's interesting that you say your legacy is not about you. When you have kids, that's certainly the case. But is fame a part of that, too? Because when you become famous, you begin to lose a bit of control over how the world sees you, over your own legacy. Things get so big and crazy that you can't be in control of it all.
Legacy, fame, family: All of those things go in one hand. You just gotta undertstand how to dish it out as you see fit. That's all become a part of your spiritual discernment, and what you think should go out there when it goes out there, man. Once you start having kids, man, you start seeing life different. You see how beautiful they are. You see yourself in them and how you wanted certain things, and they have different passions.
My kids, I'm not pushing them to sing, I'm not pushing them to write, although they can do it and do it well. But I'm not pushing or pulling. I'm here to support them with whatever they want. My main thing is to make sure they're secure in case they don't want to do any of that stuff. I was way less fortunate than my kids -- I had nothing, grew up in poverty. So I'm just here to break that poverty curse throughout my family, because nobody before me ever had anything. And I'm trying to build that with my kids.
You sang with your daughter on Wanna Be There. Did that song change anything about your relationship with her?
I think it made us better individually and collectively. She's going through her teenage thing, you know, and I'm going through my older-man thing. I'm still in the business, proving to people that I am R. Kelly, and I am the king of something. But at the same time, the most important (thing) to me is being a daddy and having a relationship with my kids. My mom's not here anymore, so you really want that legacy of family to continue on. That's just the ultimate, most important thing in life, is family and the people you love.
-- Jay Cridlin