Is there any contemporary musician whose life has reached the highest highs and the lowest lows the way R. Kelly's has?
From a two-decade-long string of hits—including the number-one inspirational single "I Believe I Can Fly" and one of the best dance jams of all time, "Ignition (Remix)"—to his 2008 trial over allegedly making a videotape that showed him having sex with (and pissing on) a supposedly underage girl, Robert Sylvester Kelly has had a career of which both dreams and nightmares are made.
Lately, though, it's been mostly dreams—after a long couple of years of nightmares. Kelly was found not guilty of all the charges against him, but the fallout from the trial, which was almost seven years in the making, destroyed his marriage. And then in 2011, Kelly had emergency throat surgery.
"I was scared as hell. I didn't know what was going on," Kelly says on the phone from his tour bus. "I didn't know if I was going to have to start singing softer or what. But thank God that's not the case."
Once he recovered, Kelly turned 2012 into a banner year. He produced the soundtrack for Whitney Houston's final motion picture, Sparkle, which came out this past August. Kelly also released a memoir, Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me, along with his 11th studio album, Write Me Back. Then, last week, the Independent Film Channel premiered the next installment of Trapped in the Closet, Kelly's "hip-hopera"—the first new chapters since 2007.
In an interview at the New York premiere, Kelly stated that he had 85 completed episodes of Trapped in the Closet ready to go. (IFC showed episodes 23 through 33 last week.) But when I ask him about it, Kelly has a surprise.
"It's up to 86 now—I did a chapter on the bus coming to Washington last night. I'm kind of on a roll," Kelly laughs. "I don't even have to be in the studio anymore."
Kelly says that 30 more chapters will premiere in the next six to seven months, and yes, you will finally find out what is in "the package"—sooner, rather than later.
"Oh, yeah! See, I didn't want to make the fans wait any longer. At the end of [Chapter 33], and they're walking towards the doors, that's the door that opens and reveals what it is," Kelly says.
At the New York premiere, Kelly also annnounced that Trapped in the Closet could end up on Broadway. I ask him if there's a set timeline yet.
"We've been in negotiations for a while and had a lot of positive meetings. So that's why I decided to say something about it last week—I like to speak things into existence," Kelly says.
Although there's a Gene Kelly-esque interlude in the video for "Feelin' Single," the second single off Write Me Back, Kelly says the musical version of Trapped in the Closet won't be classic Broadway.
"It's going to be something different than Broadway is used to doing," Kelly says. "But it's going to be different from the television version, too."
Kelly has basically created his own genre with Trapped in the Closet, a harmonized soap opera in which he sings all the parts (and acts a number of them on screen).
"It was like I was a novelist writing about how our lives are all interconnected, which was the point of the whole drama. As people living in a community and in the world, we all impact one another," Kelly writes in his memoir. "Everyone has a secret. Everyone has a closet that he or she is trapped inside of, and everyone—believe it or not—wants out of that closet."
Soulacoaster is proably the most graphically compelling memoir you'll pick up this year. A cross between a coffee-table book and an issue of Raygun, the book utilizes pictures, pull-out quotes, and a mix of fonts to tell the story of Kelly's meteoric rise to fame from the South Side of Chicago to a recording superstar. Kelly is surprisingly honest about some of his flaws—he admits to cheating on his girlfriend, fighting with his wife as their marriage fell apart (she threw her $50,000 wedding ring in a pond at his challenge), and sobbing while watching The Notebook. He says he also cried at the conclusion of his trial—and then he went to McDonald's, where he ordered a double cheeseburger and fries.
If you've listened to Kelly's soulful crooning over the past two decades, it's no surpise that he's a man who admits to crying—in public, no less. Whatever his faults may (or may not) be, Kelly has heart like few other singers ever. It's why the ladies love him. It's how he can sing such sexual songs without sounding ridiculous. On Write Me Back, Kelly turns it down a notch—gone is "Sex Weed," replaced with the 1970s groove of "Share My Love."
"Come here, baby," the song goes. "Just lay your body right here, baby/And let me tell you all/All the things, I wanna do to you, baby."
There's a hint of the O'Jay's "She Used to Be My Girl" in the groove, but Kelly has a sound all his own. I asked him how, after 20 years, he could keep reinventing his music—and himself—so successfully, still reamining at the top of the R&B charts single after single, album after album.
"I study music a lot," Kelly answers. "I'm always listening, not just to myself, but to what everybody else is doing. I listen to the radio the way people follow the stock market. ... I've always been good at remixing songs, and now I look at it like I'm remixing my career."
Kelly hits the Tennessee Theatre on Tuesday with his Single Ladies tour, an intimate evening featuring songs old and new, skits, karaoke, and even audience participation. For those who can't make it to the venue, the concert will be broadcast live on the AXS Live channel (although if you have Comcast cable, you're out of luck).