Thought exercise: What comes to mind when you hear the name Robert Kelly?
You’re probably thinking, “Robert Kelly (better known as R. Kelly) is a legendary R&B singer who’s won countless Grammys and sold a staggering 40 million records worldwide. His music has been a gift to the universe. What more is there to say?”
Ruminate on this question another moment. There’s another side to R. Kelly. Beyond the music. Something you might have heard about in the news ...
Still blanking? C’mon! Have you been living under a rock?
R. Kelly is also -- unapologetically -- a Christmas fanatic! So much so that he's taking his new 12 Days of Christmas album on the road, with a stop planned for Saturday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. We should probably have a conversation about this, right?
Last week City Pages was able to speak with Mr. Kelly by phone about our curiosities concerning his life in music, his love of Christmas, and absolutely nothing else. Imagine our elated surprise when Kelly’s publicist narrowed appropriate interview topics to precisely these three:
Christmas! R&B stardom! Nothing else!
Sometimes our conversation risked running off topic (damn ADHD), but lucky for us, R. Kelly’s publicist was on the line to steer us back whenever we went off course.
But one thing R. Kelly’s publicist can’t stop us from is loading this turkey up with context-free hyperlinks. Feel free to click around. Merry Christmas!
City Pages: Why did you decide to record your Christmas album?
R. Kelly: Yeah man, I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas album. A Christmas show. I’ve been in the business for a long time and I felt it was time to get a Christmas album in. It felt good to me. Ten years I’ve been working on this.
I know a lot of people probably thinking, “R. Kelly’s doing a Christmas album? Why?” Well, why not? I’m a father. I’m a kid inside. I love Christmas, it’s my favorite time of the year just like everybody else. It’s just that I happen to sing and write songs. So why not at this point in my career do a Christmas album? It makes all the sense in the world.
CP: What kind of emotional experience should our audience prepare themselves for?
RK: Feel-good emotions. This album was designed to purely just make people feel good. I want people to feel good about Christmas and life. There’s a lot of things going on man, on the earth. There’s a lot of negativity. And when that happens the best thing to do is listen to some good music and feel good about life.
CP: What does R. Kelly’s ideal Christmas look like?
RK: I guarantee you, it looks just like yours. Family and friends. My Christmas is no different than anyone else’s.
RK: Well, you gotta fireplace? If you gotta fireplace and a girl -- some wine -- you get the new 12-player album from R Kelly -- The 12 nights of Christmas. Then you good. You can’t go wrong.
CP: It’s been a hell of a year. The world is terrifying. There’s a palpable national anxiety. What can R. Kelly do to give us all hope for the future?
RK: Hmm. You know, musically is the only way I’m able to contribute to this earth. And I try to do that with my songs. And I’m hoping, safely, that I can continue on with that mission. Because music, I think, can change the world. I think music is the only chance we have. That’s where “Love Letter” comes in. That’s where “Step in the Name of Love” comes in. That’s where “I Believe I Can Fly” comes in. And I hope those songs have planted seeds over the years and I hope I can continue to do that.
CP: How will you approach this continuation of your legacy?
RK: Well, just continue to upgrade. You know, reinvent. Kind of like the iPhone. Like, there’s always new apps and new upgrades, but at the end of the day it’s still the iPhone. So I’m gonna keep it true to R. Kelly but continue to upgrade and reinvent and remix my career year after year, man.
CP: What motivates you to create your art?
RK: The fans, you know? It’s my fans. Going on the road and touring, which is the best part of having an album out, because you get to go out there and feel the love and the realness of the people. And once you receive that love, how can it not inspire you? It’s very inspiring to hear the appreciation of all the hard work you put in grindin’ in the studio. So to go out there and grind, and everybody loving it --makes you want to go back to the studio and do it again.
CP: Has that always been your motivation?
RK: Well, of course when you’re doing it, you’re just having fun doing it. But during that time you’re also working and you do want people to love it. You want to create fans. And when people hear it, they’re touched by it and want play it over and over again and for years to come. And I’m just fortunate in my life that I was able to achieve that.
CP: When did you know you had a gift?
RK: Around the age of 15. I did a high school talent show. Everybody was standing up and applauding and going crazy while I was singing. I knew something was going on. It was a great feeling.
CP: Are you going to be doing other Christmas songs at this show? Traditionals? Rudolf? The hits?
RK: You’re going to hear songs off of 12 Nights of Christmas, but make no mistake about it -- I have to perform R. Kelly. I gotta do the "Bump N' Grind"'s and the catalog too, cause I’ll get booed off the stage if I don’t.
CP: Prince died on April 21. Especially in Minneapolis, it’s impossible to evaluate the year without the lens of this tragic event. What did you learn from the man?
RK: The thing I learned the most from Prince is to say what you feel. You know, don’t be afraid of what people say about you. Be your own artist and do it your own way. Because he definitely was a man and did it his way and succeeded.
CP: If R. Kelly were not a singer, but instead a medicinal herb, what kind of healing properties would you contain?
[Publicist: Sorry to interrupt Ryan, can you please move to the next question if possible?]
CP: What’s the strangest Christmas present you’ve ever received?
RK: Ugh, you know, man. It was a guitar.
CP: OK. Do you play the guitar?
RK: Enough to write. It’s like the piano. I play enough to write my songs. But when I got the guitar it really struck a lot of music in me, melodies and stuff like that.
CP: Is there a Christmas song you thinks works best in the strip club?
RK: If I was the DJ, now, I don’t care, I would play the hip-hop but then around Christmas time I would bust in the Christmas songs by Nat King Cole. [Laughs] To be honest.
CP: Is Nat King Cole the king of Christmas music?
RK: Absolutely. Hands down. And forever will be.
CP: And then R. Kelly’s Christmas music?
RK: Oh yeah, then me.
CP: How do you maintain your beautiful voice? Do you do any special exercises or drink a special tea or anything like that?
RK: No man. I do regular things every day. I may smoke a stogie or something. Drink a little Hennessy. I’m still R. Kelly. I don’t do anything but just be a regular person. I play basketball every day I can, so maybe that’s it? God has blessed me with the voice man, but I don’t do anything but just be a regular person.
CP: What do you do on the tour bus when you get bored?
RK: Stop at the mall. Watch Netflix. Get off and go play basketball. Write some songs.
CP: What do you think about the internet?
CP: Was there anything about this last year that you found inspiring?
RK: No. Not really. But I don’t know. Just the new sounds that’s playing on the radio that I’ve been studying for my new hip-hop and R&B album. And I’ve been discovering that a lot of people have been studying R. Kelly. And they’ve done a really great job at flipping melodies and flipping ideas and inspiration. I hear the influence in it and it makes me feel good. It makes me feel good that I’ve played a part in inspiring somebody.
CP: Let’s talk about that. It does seem like you’ve had a lot of influence on popular music, especially of late. R&B has gotten more adult in the mainstream. A lot of the hits you might hear on the radio today do sound inspired by things you were doing 15 years ago. Can you expand on how that makes you feel?
RK: It makes me feel like -- mission accomplished. Because, I didn’t get in this just to make myself great. I got in this to try to make others great. To plant a seed for people to follow. A path like Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles paved for me. I want to continue that legacy and keep that road clear for other people to come down. And that inspires me.
CP: What kind of project does R. Kelly want to work on that he hasn’t yet brought into this word?
RK: I’ve written a few movies. Scripts and everything. So I’d like to concentrate and work on getting those out there. I really want to get into writing movies and making scores and things like that.
CP: Can we look forward to new chapters of Trapped in the Closet next year? The world needs more.
RK: Absolutely. I got 30 more chapters, 30 more chapters in the studio that I’ve done. So we’re working out the deals now to get those out there. Hopefully that’ll be soon.
CP: What’s the secret to living a fulfilling life?
R. Kelly's 12 Nights of Christmas
When: 8 p.m. Sat., Dec. 10.
Where: Orpheum Theatre
Tickets: $62-$132; more info here