This Saturday, April 30th, I will be seeing R. Kelly perform at the Sprint Center in Kansas City as he will be promoting his newest album “The Buffet”. While I have only listened to a couple of tracks here and there from his new album, this concert is a bit of a culminating lifetime event for me, as R. Kelly has been an active part of my musical listening life since I was in 3rd grade. Yes, that sounds odd for a R&B artist who is known for singing sexually provocative songs to be booming through the earbuds of a 9-year-old Pinoy kid, but believe me, R. Kelly is sacred to me. R. Kelly (along with Bone Thugs and Harmony) was responsible for introducing my young ears to the world of R&B and Hip Hop, and even to this day, R. Kelly has always been considered one of my music staples.
So, to get ready for the concert, not to mention this weekend in general, I will be examining two R. Kelly songs that I have the closest ties to. Furthermore, they’re dope throwback jams (which come at different points in R. Kelly’s career), and they’re worth listening to in your car or in your place if you got company or are getting ready to go out. These two songs are not only R. Kelly classics, but in my mind, they are essentials in the modern R&B world as well.
“Down Low” featuring the Isley Brothers (1995)
Down Low was my first exposure to R. Kelly when I was in the 3rd grade and just discovering Hip Hop on MTV. I was living in Spokane, Washington, which is a cool town (I went to Gonzaga University, which is also located in Spokane, so obviously I did not hate the place if I decided to spend four years there to get my academic degree) but to be honest, is very white and for a while, was the biggest city in the state of Washington that was mostly Republican (that has changed a bit over the years, as more Gonzaga graduates are staying in Spokane, hence changing the Blue-Red spectrum). My only really exposure to R&B and Hip Hop was through MTV Music Videos, and while Down Low was not the first (That belonged to Bone Thugs’ “Crossroads“), it was probably one of the more profound and impacting songs/music videos I listened to that got me transitioning from grunge rock to R&B and Hip Hop.
To be honest, one of my reasons for the musical transition was at the time, I knew my family and I were moving to California, and I looked up to my cousins on my Mom’s side (the Filipino side) and they were all about Rap, and I wanted to associate myself with as much Hip Hop as humanely possible so I wouldn’t look like an ass hole who “didn’t know jack about music” in front of my cousins, not to mention my soon-to-be California classmates wherever I went to school to (which, considering I went to a Catholic school that was mostly white, proved to be fruitless, as not many kids in my class ended up listening to hip hop; they mostly were the punk and metal rock crowd, and I had my brief period of time with those genres as well). So, whatever I listened to that mirrored Rap, I was into, and R. Kelly, in my pre-pubescent mind fit in that category. It had the same kind of beat as Rap, though a bit slower and softer, and better yet, I could buy the albums because they didn’t have the parental advisory label on it.
When I moved to California the summer after 3rd grade, and was hanging out with my cousins in Vallejo, we went to the Wherehouse where they were trading and buying albums. Since they were a combination of 8th graders in middle school and freshmen in high school, and had parents who didn’t give a “F” what they bought musically, they bought all the cool stuff: Bone Thugs, E-40, Wu Tang Clan, etc. I could not buy that stuff because you know, I was nine years old and not only would the cashier not sell me a “36 Chambers” album on cassette, but my parents would flip their shit if they found out I was jamming to “C.R.E.A.M.” in my room (though as I got older and visited my cousins more often, they were able to sneak me cassette copies of their albums, and I was able to listen to them on my cassette Walkman; damn those days were great). So, as they bought “the good stuff” I decided to buy the R. Kelly self-titled album because a.) I had seen the “Down Low” music video on MTV when I was in Spokane and b.) it was the closest thing to rap I could get because it didn’t have a parental advisory sticker on it (the more I think about it, I have to imagine that the Wherehouse cashier was like “WTF????” when I paid the money to buy that tape).
Now, going back to the “Down Low” music video, when I watched it initially when I was nine, I loved it because I loved the beat, I thought R. Kelly was cool as shit, and the whole music video had this elaborate story with some serious production values, which catered to a wild-imagination kid like myself who also liked mystery stories and action films. But holy crap, I HAD NO IDEA WHAT KELLY WAS TALKING ABOUT OR DOING WITH LILA HEART IN THE DAMN VIDEO!!! I mean, the ripping off of her shirt; setting her on the kitchen island; the making out with him on top of her while she was only in her red lace bra (though I didn’t really know what a bra was at the time let alone lace); Isley getting all pissed off when he finds Kelly in bed with her (and taking off his sunglasses and whipping his ponytail back in the most dramatic fashion); Isley and his crew beating the shit out of Kelly (and eventually Lila to death…though you never see it); and finally, leaving him in the middle of the desert and him grabbing a bloody Kelly by his tanktop and yelling “LOOK AT ME!!! I DID THIS TO YOU!!”
Yeah. I didn’t really understand any of that as a 9-10 year old. And to be honest, I really thought Isley was overreacting. In my mind, I was like “What’s he so mad about? Yeah they kissed and stuff, but they were just taking a nap! Why the hell was he flipping out?”
(Then again, I also thought the girl originally was his daughter when I first watched this, which got me all confused, because Disney animated movies (mostly Aladdin, which also came out at the time, and involved a dad trying to hook Jasmine up with a variety of suitors; so to me Aladdin and Kelly were like the same person) taught me as a kid that all dads wanted their daughters to find good dudes to marry. And I thought Isley was just trying to be a protective “father” in the opening scene of the music video (I also came to realize later that older guys could date younger women). This brand of naivety also came into play with AZ Yet’s “Last night” as I thought the verse “Last night, I was inside of you” was talking about a baby being born; they were talking about a baby, but more about making one than giving one, which I found out later in my teenage years.)
But then years later, I found out that Lila was Isley’s “woman” (never specifies whether she’s a wife, girlfriend or “side” of his), Kelly was having sex in secret with her at her request, and Isley was pissed because Kelly worked for him and trusted him (like a “bro”) and that’s why he flipped out and tried to leave him in the middle of the desert to die “Casino”-style (though he somehow not only gets to the hospital all right, but also the same hospital as Lila; this really was under-explained and deserved more…and yes, this is me demanding more from a R. Kelly music video, which sounds like sacrilege after “Trapped in the Closet”). I realized that this song was referring to having an affair and keeping it quiet, which in my teenage years sounded like the craziest concept ever, especially since I was pretty sheltered as a kid by my parents and anything beyond a monogamous relationship at the time sounded not only so against the grain, but also unfathomable because I assumed all marriages were “happy” partnerships. “Down Low” and R. Kelly exposed me to the underbelly of “secret” relationships, and in a rhythmic and entrancing way that encouraged me to push down the walls of “cloistered-ness” that I grew up in. That isn’t saying I got into a “Down Low” relationship or wanted one, but it made me realize that this “secret” world existed and as bad as it sounded, good music could come out of it.
And yes, this realization all developed in my middle and high schools years. R. Kelly had me examining the “morality” of infidelity through his 1995 hit song, all because I wanted to listen to hip hop. That is some Socrates shit right there, and in addition to a new realization of relationships, I also delved into R&B hardcore. Because of “Down Low” and R. Kelly’s self-titled album, I went on to buy other albums from artists like Keith Sweat, Blackstreet, AZ Yet, Boyz II Men and even Toni Braxton (though that was more my mom who loved “Unbreak My Heart” for whatever reason…I’m not going to ask her on that one).
And I did this all before I graduated middle school.
“Fiesta” (Remix) featuring Jay-Z, Boo and Gotti
The “Fiesta” remix came out in 2001, right when I was becoming a freshman in high school. The song was absolutely dope, as it was a hot track that was widely played on 102.5 and 103.5, two hip-hop and R&B based radio stations in Sacramento. To be honest, my listening to R. Kelly and R&B waned in my late middle school years, as I went through this weird metal phase where I listened to Limp Bizkit and Rob Zombie (I instantly regret and try to forget this period of my life musically). However, after being exposed to the “Fiesta” Remix, I was back all-in on R. Kelly.
During the Christmas Break of my Freshman year, I got a Borders Bookstore certificate and went to the music aisle to buy some CDs (because Borders had music, so why the hell would I buy books when I could by music instead? My parents hated me for this and stopped giving me Borders gift certificates as gifts when they realized I wasn’t buying it on books). In the “Top Hits” section, I found the TP-2.com CD which had the song “Fiesta” on it, and since I loved that song, and had fond memories of it from my younger days, I decided to use my gift certificate money on it.
There was one problem: it had a parental advisory label on it.
I remember taking about 10 minutes debating whether I should buy it or not. I looked at it, thought about going to the cashier to buy it, then I changed my mind, put it back, went to another aisle, saw some Matchbox 20 or shit like that, realized that I was compromising, and then would go back and stare at the TP-2.com CD some more. It was very similar to how I approached girls at dances in high school, with the only difference being that unlike the album which was still there on the rack, either a.) the girl would be dancing with another dude by the time I made the second pass-by or b.) they would be creeped out and wouldn’t want to dance (Yes, I didn’t date much in high school consequently).
After much deliberation, I grabbed the CD and decided to buy it. I remember sweating bullets as I gave it to the cashier, who looked to be a dude in high school or college. I thought he was going to ask how old I was or if I had ID, like I was buying beer or cigarettes or porn. But much to surprise, all that anxiety and worry came to naught. He rang it up, I paid with my gift card, he put it in the bag and I was on my way. He didn’t mention a damn thing about the parental advisory label.
And boy, I remember strutting out of that Borders with all the damn confidence in the world. I had just bought the TP-2.com and my first parental advisory album. It was like I just grew my first armpit hair or had sex for the first time. That’s how elated I felt as I gazed at R. Kelly in his white beanie, sunglasses and fur coat on the cover when I got home in my room with the door closed, right before I popped it in to my CD Walkman (notice how I remained loyal to the Sony Walkman brand after all these years).
But there was one problem: the album didn’t have the “Fiesta” Remix! It had the original “Fiesta” song, which was cool, but it wasn’t the version with Jay-Z and Boo and Gotti.
I felt like I had just gotten a number from a girl at a dance, only to find out she had given me a fake (not to say that such a thing happened…sigh…okay it did…like I said, I didn’t have a lot of dating experience in high school; sue me).
After some time with the album, I grew to appreciate it. The original “Fiesta” song, though not as good as the remix, still had its moments, and I enjoyed the “I Wish” song more than most, even though it is really a depressing song that no 15-year-old freshman should be listening to. But the “Fiesta” Remix in my opinion is one of Kelly’s best. It’s at a time in his career when Kelly revamped his style and blended his sound and writing skills into the hip hop genre. While LL Cool J and A Tribe Called Quest obviously came before when it came to the “Rap Ballad”, Kelly’s “Fiesta” was one of the major “R&B Hop” songs that fused an R&B song with a Rap flair. The song is flexible in all kinds of scenarios: You can put it on at a party, you can jam to it in your car, you can put it on when you’re hanging out with that special someone, and guess what? It’ll still be appropriate and match the mood. That is how great the “Fiesta Remix” is and what cemented Kelly with me as one of my favorite artists in the R&B genre, even to this day.
Kelly has had some highs (“Happy People” is one of my guilty pleasures; though lyrically it does sort of suck) and lows (“Trapped in the Closet” probably remains one of his most embarrassing and ridiculous ventures) in my musical experience with him. However, Kelly has always struck a chord with me when it came to how I developed my musical taste, and if it wasn’t for Kelly I wouldn’t have appreciated R&B music like I have over the years. R&B to me is like that girlfriend who you keep breaking up and getting back together with time and time again. Just when I think I’m going all House music, I am listening to Avant. When I am convinced I’m an Indie Folk guy, I am downloading The Weeknd’s mix tapes. R&B and me are forever twined, and R. Kelly is responsible for that, mostly thanks to “Down Low” and “Fiesta” Remix.
April 30th is going to be a big day. At midnight, I will be turning 29 years old, one year shy of 30.
It seems fitting to celebrate such a day with someone who has been part of my life for nearly 20 years.