R. Kelly Biography

Robert Sylvester Kelly, 8 January 1967 (1969 is also cited), Chicago, Illinois, USA. This urban R&B singer-songwriter and producer first made an impact in 1991 with his band Public Announcement, and has since become one of America’s most successful solo artists.

Kelly grew up in the housing projects of Chicago’s South Side, but channelled his energies away from fast money-making schemes and into long-term musicianship. He had a natural flair for most instruments, eventually becoming, more by accident than design, a useful busking act. It earned him a living, until constant police disruptions forced him to reconsider his employment. He put together the R&B outfit MGM, and went on to win a national talent contest on the Big Break television show, hosted by Natalie Cole. Unfortunately, that outfit’s energy dissipated, and his next major break came when manager Barry Hankerson spotted him while auditioning for a play at the Regal Theatre in Chicago. He soon had Kelly acting as musical co-ordinator/producer for a slew of acts, including Gladys Knight, David Peaston, Aaliyah, and the Hi-Five (who had a number 1 single, ‘Quality Time’, with Kelly at the controls). His diversity was confirmed with his work with the Winans gospel family, notably a duet with Ronald Winans on ‘That Extra Mile’.

All this would be surpassed by the success of Kelly’s second album, 1993’s 12 Play, which stayed on top of the R&B charts for nine weeks. Two bestselling singles were included on the set, ‘Sex Me (Parts I & II)’ and ‘Bump N’ Grind’ (US number 1/UK number 8). As if from nowhere, despite a long apprenticeship, Kelly seemed to have acquired the Midas touch. ‘She’s Got That Vibe’, a reissue from his debut album, became a big club and chart hit in England at the same time. His third album eschewed the blatant sexuality of 12 Play, attributed in part to his friendship with gospel singer Kirk Franklin (Kelly later confirmed that he had found God). The same year he wrote and produced the Grammy-nominated ‘You Are Not Alone’ for Michael Jackson. He also signed a contract to play with the Atlantic City Seagulls of the United States Basketball League (the sport is the other great love of his life). The Grammy Award-winning ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ became another massive international hit when it was featured as the theme for the 1997 movie Space Jam.

The increasingly prolific Kelly, whose writing and production credits also include work for Whitney Houston and Boyz II Men, then released the sprawling double album R, which debuted at number 2 on the Billboard album chart in November 1998. The album was an ambitious and diverse set featuring contributions from Celine Dion (the US number 1 single ‘I’m Your Angel’), Nas and Foxy Brown. The moving ballad ‘If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time’ later became a bestselling UK Top 5 hit. Responding to the challenge of rivals D’Angelo and Puff Daddy, the clumsily titled TP-2.Com (a follow-up of sorts to 12 Play) released in November 2000, saw Kelly overplaying the self-absorbed loverman persona but shot straight to the top of the US chart.

Kelly enjoyed a transatlantic hit single at the start of 2002 with his tribute to Muhammad Ali, ‘The World’s Greatest’. A very public court case failed to dampen Kelly’s prolific work load, although his collaboration with rap superstar Jay-Z gave rise to the disappointing The Best Of Both Worlds. Kelly bounced back to the top of the US charts in March 2003 with his new album, Chocolate Factory. The excellent single ‘Ignition’ also broke into the US Top 5 and topped the UK charts. The sprawling, spiritually-inclined double set Happy People/U Saved Me followed in 2004, shortly before the release of a second studio collaboration with Jay-Z. The duo’s American concert tour was hampered by barely disguised personal enmity between the two stars, and eventually ended up in court after Kelly walked off stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Kelly’s next solo project was the 2005 album TP.3: Reloaded, the third part in the 12 Play series (after 12 Play and TP-2.Com). Despite mixed reviews and continual media interest in the ongoing court case, the album was another huge commercial success. During this period, Kelly also launched the first instalment in his ambitious urban opera film Trapped In The Closet, an ongoing narrative that spawned a second film two years later. The 2007 release Double Up was ridiculously long and over-inflated, although as was the case with many of his albums the highlights (‘Real Talk’, ‘Sex Planet’, ‘Same Girl’) proved to be among the year’s best urban tracks.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.