by carl wilson

Sexasaurus Rex: R. Kelly's Tightrope Act
(And the Serialized-Single Revolution)

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Jody Rosen has a great piece on Slate today about R. Kelly's turn from love-man to "meta-love-man." (Though I have to mourn the missed wordplay-op there - maybe Jody couldn't decide between plain "metasexual" and "meta-ro-sexual"? I'm having the same problem. And also now on the hunt for a situation that would justify the use of "retro-sexual" - maybe the carryings-on in Mad Men.) I agree with Jody that Kells is now playing up his sense of humour, and that this is a refreshing thing in pop music, particularly in the over-earnest realm of R&B; - and it's also an impressive lover-man move, as surely being able to joke about sex is a helluvalot more potent display of sexual confidence than male R&B; singers' standard boasting and overbearing come-ons. The clearest precedent is Prince at his best, but generally Kells is stepping into the underrecognized lineage of perv pop, the boudoir music made by men so louche that coming on to you is almost a redundant formality - they can say any ridiculous thing and it all means "... and then we shall fuck." Serge Gainsbourg is probably the paradigmatic case, as New Zealand musician George D. Henderson argues in the above-linked blog (and as The Teenagers, No Bra and even Flight of the Conchords know). But Henderson's list should be balanced out by the long line of jelly-rolling, lemon-squeezing, backdoor-knockin' blues musicians whose comic flair helped furnish Kelly with his metaphor-slinging modus operandi.

For all that in principle I want to give kudos to Kells's vaudevillian turn, I have my hesitations about it, too. Kelly's humour has always been most effective when he leaves us guessing - when he plays the "is he kidding or is he actually such a crazy motherfucker that he means that?" game. It's not an easy effect to pull off - and there are times when people's inability to credit Kelly's comic awareness seems to spring from plain racism - but he is most able to fascinate when he teeters on the edge of self-parody without letting himself slip all the way over. It's a tightrope act. That's also a way of charging up the magnetism of the songs - jokes, after all, wear thin with repetition, but a song that winks at you so subtly that you're not sure whether you really saw it is going to pull you in back over and over again, to try and catch it in the act. So I confess I've been hesitant to watch the new episodes of Trapped in the Closet, because I felt like at the end of the first set the humour started getting really broad, and any illusion that Kelly believed in his characters started to collapse - moving from irony into camp into farce. After that, Kelly can only play the "how far do you think I can take it?" game, which is enjoyable, but a bit less mesmerizing.

The other conspicuous fact about Trapped is how sui generis it is; but I'm actually a bit surprised that it's remained alone in its category since Kelly launched it in 2005. The basic idea - a series of interlinked singles, released gradually online, with some kind of structure of narrative and/or suspense built in - is a perfect response to the changing conditions of the music industry. Naturally nobody should dare to make an imitation Trapped (unless it's Weird Al, or South Park, or some kid with Sims), but the basic template offers the potential for a wider variety of approaches. The singles-serial could be to the 2Ks what the concept album was to the '70s... Ah, right, maybe that's the problem. But still.

Mind you, Kells' penchant for seriality is not due to the existence of iTunes and YouTube, however much it suits them. He's been horsing around in the pastures of "to be continued" ever since his debut album when he introduced Ronald Isley's Mr. Biggs character. There aren't many other contemporary performers - except Eminem, at his peak - who seem so comfortable with creating ongoing characters. But that's not the only possible way to link a set of singles: Just think what Jack White, or Bjork, or Andre 3000, or Lil Wayne, might do with the form.

Jody's piece included a link to this performance I hadn't seen before, by the way - Kelly doing a kickass a capella live rendition of his new song Zoo - just earnest enough to make you laugh and hot you up at the same time, and as any would-be seducer knows, that's a consummation most profanely to be wished.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, August 22 at 2:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (0)

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson