Say what you will about R. Kelly: that he’s a sexual deviant who illegally marries and pees on underage girls, that “Trapped in the Closet” is the mark of an insane person or what have you, but the fact is that every time I hear “Thoia Thoing” I start dancing like one of those battery-operated cymbal-playing monkeys, complete with unblinking eyes and chattering teeth. The man has a gift for making even the most inept dancer morph into a Hype Williams video extra. IT’S A GIFT.
His eleventh studio album, Write Me Back, is due next month (and I mean that’s fantastic because this homage was happening either way; at least now it can happen under the guise of relevance). Now’s a good a time as any to brush up on the eclectic, puzzling, oft-straight-up-questionable catalog of Kelz.
(Note: Some songs listed *technically* belong to other artists, but would only be like, 25% of the song they are today were it not for him blessing them with his golden voice. Don’t be a nitpicker.)
1. Bump N’ Grind
“Bump N’ Grind” put Kelly on the map, even though the tune wasn’t all that distinctive. It basically sounds like someone put Jodeci and Muscle Milk in a blender, sprinkled some 1994 on top and served it chilled. But whatever! As one of the original booty jams, it’s scientifically imperative that “Bump N’ Grind” be grandfathered into any R. Kelly countdown.
2. Down Low (Nobody Has To Know)
This song gave me horror movie brain when I was a kid; every time I heard it I was like, “NOOOOOO. DON’T GO IN
THERE HER! YOU STUPID? YOU STUPID.” And then the remix — didn’t you learn your lesson? I mean, you’re in a wheelchair. LILA IS DEAD. All of these grim hospital scenes are giving me agita. (Speaking of the remix — you’re gonna go call her breasts Tig Ol’ Bitties during a serious dialogue like that? Bold.)
3. I Believe I Can Fly
IBICF is the perfect graduation/ “I’m having an emotional, puberty-induced MOMENT right now” song. I want to make fun of the Space Jam anthem, but I remember feeling genuinely inspired and comforted by this song as a 5th grader. I could probably shed a tear listening to it right now, if I weren’t dead inside.
4. I’m Your Angel (f/ Celine Dion)
“I’m Your Angel” R. Kelly makes “I Believe I Can Fly” R. Kelly look like Cujo. Pretty sure this was the most WTF partnership of 1998 — and that’s pretty impressive, considering Dennis Rodman and Carmen Electra were the competition. This duet, following IBICF and “Gotham City” had me worried we’d lost R. Kelly to the dark side. Which is actually more like the bourgeois, Grammy-gifting side in this instance.
5. Be Careful (Sparkle f/ R. Kelly)
This song was so REAL. “I supported you through law school and now that I got laid off you’re all WHATEVER” and “Girl, I was a dad to your bastard child and this is the thanks I get?” What a perfect illustration of He Said, She Said. Can’t get enough.
6. Did You Ever Think (f/ Nas)
And finally, the first iteration of the Kelly we know and love today emerges from the shrouds of softness with “Did You Ever Think.” After all, once you win a bunch of Grammys and have a crossover single with Celine Dion, it’s time to quit pretending you really needed that job with Mr. Bigs and that the trouble in your relationship stems from financial issues and start being like, “Oh, BTW — I totally recognize how crazy rich and famous I am, here’s a song about my good fortune and manufactured modesty to prove it.”
7. I Wish
AND AGAIN, WITH THE SOFTNESS. Songs that feature singing children typically make me want to punt kittens, but I can appreciate R.’s message here. He just misses the simpler times. He’s like “Wait, you guys. I know I was just bragging about how paid I am, but now I’m here to remind you that money can’t bring my friend back to life. And also I’m here to hopefully solicit some empathy from you. Is it working?”
8. Guilty Until Proven Innocent (Jay-Z f/ R. Kelly)
Everything these two collaborate on is fantastic, but the cherry on the “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” sundae is that it preceded Kelly’s six-year-long legal troubles re: peeing on a 15-year-old girl on film. (He was found Not Guilty, BTW.)
9. Feelin’ On Your Booty
This surprisingly retro booty jam channels “Bump N’ Grind,” but it’s decidedly more urbane than its predecessor as evidenced by the use of “thugged out” as a state of being, the immortalizing of the popular idiom “players gon’ play,” and an adlib in which Kelly sings “Your boo-ty” with unwavering repetition and impressive inflection for 30+ seconds. Win.
10. Fiesta (Remix) (f/ Jay-Z)
At this point, R. Kelly could probably record himself snoring and we’d all be like OMG THIS IS THE JAM PASS ME A BLUNT AND A 40,000 CALORIE DRINK THAT COMES IN A FAKE COCONUT, but “Fiesta” was the first in a string of bona fide ~summer jamz~ and for that, we salute it.
11. Ignition (Remix)
It’s impossible not to feel good when this song is playing. It’s like sunshine or binge eating Mexican food in your underwear. Side note: have you heard the original “Ignition”? It’s not even worthy of sharing a title with the remix. The remix should just go its own way, like Cher.
Another pitch-perfect song for the sexy season, “Snake” elicits NSFL dance moves that’ll feel really good coming out and really terrible going back in, visually, if someone happened to catch you dancing on film. (If someone catches you dancing to this song on film, fight your curiosity and just walk away. Some things can’t be unseen.)
13. Step in the Name of Love
This song legitimately makes me want to vomit happiness and good vibes. It’s like, the Pied Piper of R&B announces himself and suddenly I lose all control, I’m stepping in the name of love, separating and bringing it back, telling “them” we did it for love, snapping my fingers, calling my grandma… I just… too many emotions…
14. Thoia Thoing
Despite centering on words that don’t actually exist, “Thoia Thoing” channels the exotic aesthetic of “Snake” and the party vibes of “Fiesta (Remix)” to create a perfect storm of ass shaking.
15. Take You Home With Me (Body) (Jay-Z f/ R. Kelly)
R.’s flawless riff on Jay’s verse from “Ain’t No Nigga” is just further proof that the two of them belong together and should kiss and make up so that SWFs like myself have something to live for again.
16. Hotel (Cassidy f/ R. Kelly)
I think we can all agree that R. Kelly basically gave Cassidy a piggyback ride on this track. Despite being relegated to the “featured” artist, he really gave his all — the sultry bridge, the “ladies” adlib, the very obviously “Fiesta”-inspired Latin beat — it’s signature Kelz and Cassidy better stop whatever he’s doing the day R. Kelly dies and spill one — no, two — out for him in retribution.
17. Happy People
This is essentially more family reunion music for the people who fell under the spell of the Pied Piper of R&B circa “Step in the Name of Love.” When I first heard this song was “another one for the steppers,” I immediately identified. I was like, “Omigod wait — that’s me! I’m a stepper!” I guess you become a stepper when you’re instinctively able to interpret Kelly’s vague instructions to “spin around and break it down tonight” and “bring it on up, move in close, and let me see you and your partner stroll” (WITHOUT referencing the video, thankyouverymuch). This song is just so zen, so amazing. I don’t know what R. Kelly was going through when he conceptualized the Pied Piper of R&B, but I need to go through that sh-t, too. Sign me up.
18. I’m a Flirt (Remix) (f/ T-Pain and TI)
This song is just fun. It’s the kind of song you don’t want to end; every verse is better than the last. TI and T-Pain almost give Kelz a run for his money on his own track, but in the end he reminds everyone that he’s the King of R&B and the audience at home is all, “Yep. Yeah you are.” Plus, this line?: “I’m black, handsome, I sing, plus I’m rich, and I’m a flirt” is just kind of life changing if you have your priorities straight.
19. Go Getta (Young Jeezy f/ R. Kelly)
Young Jeezy kind of sounds like an adult male cat with laryngitis, but Kelly’s verse is so smooth that it redeems the entire song. Makes me wanna go git it.
20. Same Girl (f/ Usher)
Usher and R. Kelly on the same song is basically like oral sex for your ears, or something. Plus you have to love the nod to earlier songs in that same vein (“The Girl is Mine” and… well, “The Boy is Mine” come to mind).
Honorable Mention: Make It Rain (Fat Joe f/ Lil Wayne, R. Kelly, Baby, Rick Ross, Ace Mac)
I mean… he’s trying to stay R&B but these streets are a part of him… and THANK GOD FOR THAT.