R. Kelly opened his home and invited a select group of journalists into his living room to preview his ninth studio album, Untitled, in Chicago on Monday (Aug. 17). The unforgettable evening provided a glimpse into the life of one of music’s most private entertainers, including candid conversations with the R&B superstar and a guided tour of his hit factory. Rap-Up.com was there to take it all in.
The drive from the city to R. Kelly’s 20,000-square-foot mansion in the suburbs of Olympia Fields took a little under an hour. After checking in with security and being asked to leave all cell phones inside the vehicle (which some ignored), we were escorted into the gated compound where a tour bus sat parked in the driveway. Kellz’ manager greeted guests in the living room, which looked like a ski lodge, complete with woodsy interior, stuffed couches, and a fireplace with “I Believe I Can Fly” written above it. We took our seat by a shelf full of trophies, including American Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards, Soul Train Music Awards, BET Awards, World Music Awards, and Grammys, which were relegated to the bottom shelf.
The media in attendance was treated to a soul food buffet consisting of chicken, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, catfish, cornbread, rice, beans, and salad. The house drink was “Sex in the Kitchen,” a concoction of alcohol, named after the hitmaker’s record.
We anxiously awaited a grand entrance from The R. While finishing our meal, he suddenly appeared, wearing a black button-down shirt, dark jeans, and white Air Force 1s. He immediately began mingling with guests, walking around, shaking hands, and making small talk. With drink in hand, he stood on top of the coffee table and commanded the room. “I’m trying to get back on that mountain and roar like the Lion King,” he told the crowd. He then raised a glass and made a toast: “May the best of our past be the worst of our future.”
The album is named Untitled because R. Kelly wants his fans to call it what they want. The set, due October 13, consists of 14 mainly upbeat tracks. The standouts were the catchy “Echo,” which will put yodeling in a sexy new light; “Elsewhere,” a piano ballad that helped him win back his girl (She’ll be crying elsewhere/ And I’ll be somewhere thinking about her”); and the ’70s-inspired “Be My Number 2,” co-produced by Jack Splash. The latter was a departure from Kellz’ signature sound and will surely find a home on the dance floor. Untitled is a precursor to his next album, Zodiac, which is already complete. “I feel good about the album. We put Chicago back on the map as far as R. Kelly is concerned,” he said with cigar in hand.
After the music faded, everyone followed the Pied Piper of R&B as he led them to his recording studio. The path winded around a pool resembling a rainforest, past his Maybach, and down a flight of stairs below the ground. The studio hallway was packed wall-to-wall with plaques from all the hit records he’s been a part of, from Aaliyah to Celine Dion to Michael Jackson. A Britney Spears poster on the wall was signed, “To Rob.” A sign was taped to the door that read, “Reminder: Finish Michael Jackson album,” while a note on the refrigerator said, “The Gatorade is for Rob only. If you touch, God bless your soul.”
Any non-believers were converted once Kellz sat at the keyboard and started singing songs, including his own “12 Play” (I got three kids off ’12 Play'”), Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” and “I Look to You,” the title track he penned for Whitney Houston’s new album. Whitney, Michael Jackson, and the Isley Brothers have all come through the small space where two of his biggest hits, “I Believe I Can Fly” and “The World’s Greatest,” were produced. A mirror placed next to the keyboard helps when he needs to turn his swag on. “I’m seeing Kellz now, I’m not seeing Rob, the mama’s boy,” he said when he looks into the mirror. Due to his admitted inability to spell well, he forms melodies and lyrics in his head without bringing pen to paper.
By the time the evening drew to a close, R. Kelly had won over his audience. If the plaques aren’t persuasive enough, seeing the man who put the R in R&B work firsthand was a rare and telling experience. He is deeply devoted to his craft, not to mention a gracious and personable host. Every great artist has eccentricities and R. Kelly is no exception. While his personal life may have overshadowed his talent in recent years, there is no denying what a profound impact he’s had and continues to have on pop music.
“My music is like Ali’s jabs,” Kellz said, referring to the boxing great. “There’s always a right hand punch coming.”