Abe Beame is a lover and a fighter.
What did “Let’s Get It On” sound like in 1973? Today, it’s a golden oldie, something a cotton-stuffed Jack Black can croon with adorable affectation to close out romantic comedies. But when it first came out, how did it feel and what did it represent? At the time Marvin was coming out of an intensely political period having delivered his greatest triumph, What’s Going On, outside of the Motown system ever made. He followed with Trouble Man a bleek, mellow Blaxploitation soundtrack. Then he faced a dilemma: Where to go next?
Let’s Get It On was a sexually charged masterpiece, game-changing in it’s fearless directness, with a title that dropped the cloying, childish allusions of “honey” and “baby.” Marvin’s statement went on to shape the next 20 odd years of the genre that he helped define. Soon after, R&B became a genre devoid of imagination. Regardless of whether the emotion conveyed was heart throb or heartache, it was a sure bet the feeling would be wrought with melodramatic urgency and forwardness (suddenly, the official lingua franca of Rhythm and Blues.) Enter the raunchy, self-serious terrain of Keith Sweat, Bobby Brown, Jodeci.
R. Kelly’s 12 Play is the logical conclusion of Let’s Get It On, a statement of clarity updated and executed with stunning precision and assured vision–especially for a rookie solo artist. Songs like “Your Body’s Callin,” “Bump N Grind,” and “Seems Like You’re Ready,” disposed of any and all pretense. They were universal odes to lust in the model of the great lotharios of the 80s and early 90s that Marvin bequeathed when his father killed him.
Yet something funny happened on the way to a prototypical, 3-radio hit per album-per-year model of standard R&B stardom: R. Kelly got weird. His second album, a self titled masterpiece, lead off with a single full of the kind of cutesy metaphors you’d expect from old school Motown-styled songwriting, only blended with Marvin’s graphic intensity. R. Kelly didn’t have sunshine on a cloudy day: he had a car he wanted to ride, a bank account he wanted to spend, a sound he wanted to pump.
The second single pushed the ball forward even further, with an eye turned firmly back. Ronald Isley, a Godfather of race records and generally under-appreciated as the engine behind his hit factory, the Isley Brothers, tangled with Kellz on “Down Low (Nobody Has to Know),” a story teller told in opposing first person about a torrid love triangle. “Down Low” was Kelly’s biggest hit to date and took its cues from a history of black soap opera storytelling. It was cheap popcorn fare and deeply addictive, thanks to Kelly’s supernatural and inexhaustible gift for melody.
With the album’s third single “I Can’t Sleep Baby (If I)” Kelly separated himself from the pack. He wasn’t just a great writer, singer and composer, but a student of the game, capable of the lush, epic ballads that predated him, able to play in a church or strip club and appeal to grandmother and granddaughter alike (No pun intended).
I could follow the discography with words but I’ll let this compilation do that for me. You could make a convincing argument that in the past 15 years R. Kelly has stretched the definitions and boundaries of his genre further than any working artist. This mixtape aims to highlight the songs that did that work for him. His songs employ kink, deranged metaphor and humor (Kelly might be the funniest “serious” artist ever).
On this tape, R. Kelly plays with expectation, perspective and styles that encompass incredible range, but his real gift is doing it all within the limits of familiar, timeless, accessible popular music. Someday, the scandal will be a brief footnote on his epic ass (Oh, you don’t think Marvin Gaye was fucking?) and all we’ll be left with is the music. Future generations will take in Kellz for the first time on Oldies stations in the back of their parents’ cars, and they will hear something that is at once vibrant, ancient and really fucking strange.
1. Trapped in the Closet (Chapter 9)
2. Be Careful (ft. Sparkle)
3. Ignition (Remix)
4. A Woman’s Threat
5. Sex in the Kitchen
7. The Zoo
8. Down Low (ft. Ronald Isley)
9. Showdown (ft. Ronald Isley)
10. Sex Weed
11. Number One (ft. Keri Hilson)
12. You Remind Me of Something
13. Remote Control
14. Real Talk
BONUS TRACKS: The Disciples
15. The Dream- Falsetto
16. Ne-yo- When You’re Mad
17. Marques Houston- Clubbin’ (ft. Joe Budden)
18. Trey Songz- Neighbors Know My Name
19. T-Pain- Chopped N Skrewed (ft. Ludacris)
20. Rhianna- Take a Bow
21. The Dream- Kellys 12 Play
1. The World’s Greatest
2. Aaliyah- At Your Best (Remix)
3. Your Bodys Callin
4. Step in the Name of Love (Remix)
5. Love Letter
6. Feelin’ on yo Booty
7. Half on a Baby
8. We Ride (ft. Cam’ron, Noreaga & Jay-Z)
9. I’m a Flirt (Remix) (ft. T.I. & T-Pain)
11. It Seems Like You’re Ready
12. Nas- Street Dreams (Remix)
13. Bangin’ The Headboard
14. Gotham City
15. I Believe I Can Fly
16. If I can Turn Back The Hands of Time
17. I Wish