What’s the best way for a beleaguered R&B star to escape 21 charges of child pornography, a possible 15-year future in prison, and the stigma of being featured with a 13-year-old girl in a homemade porn-video-gone-internet-favorite? Put out a hit album, of course.
Debuting at number 1, R. Kelly’s Chocolate Factory seems to have wiped from his mostly female fans’ memories the footage of the statutory rape. Sounding more soulful than ever, he has matured since last year’s collaboration with Jay-Z and produced his best all-around album.
And yet, it is difficult to listen to this album without thinking about Kelly creeping by your child’s crib, or curling up next to an underage teenybopper. On the first single, “Ignition,” lyrics that would have been classic Kelly before the scandal make you feel just a bit uneasy now: “So tell me have you ever driven a stick, babe? / You’ll be screaming every time we shift them gears, babe.” And what’s with the repeated references to children’s stories? He titled the record “Chocolate Factory,” and at least twice he refers to himself as “the Pied Piper of R&B.”
R. Kelly is obviously conscious that he needs to overcome the disgust many have for his alleged pedophilia, and he attempts to do so by dedicating most of his subject matter to love, not sex. He delivers a rather unconvincing ode to women in “Heart of Woman,” thanking them for the sacrifices they have made for society and apologizing for all men everywhere. And in “Forever,” directed at his wife, he claims to be a trustworthy, monogamous Romeo who deserves forgiveness: “No more playing house, no / ’cause I wanna make it real / Do you understand? / to have and to hold / until death do us part.” After two oversexed solo releases — TP2.com and 12 Play — the new image doesn’t seem to fit.
The singer also seems unrepentant at times, avoiding taking responsibility for his actions and looking to blame others. On “Been Around the World,” he accuses “fake homies” of betraying him and thanks the fans that have stood by him in these trying times. Guest rapper Ja Rule backs him up: “And all these haters, I keep shakin’ em off / rubbing they face in fame / I’m sorry I changed the game / but it’s mine and I can’t complain.”
The best song on the CD is the “Ignition” Remix. It is an energetic and creative remake that allows R. Kelly to display the full range of his vocal and melodic talent and personal charm. “Snake” is another one with the potential to make the jump into clubs and onto radio playlists. There are few other true standout tracks on Chocolate Factory, but with R. Kelly, there rarely are. He has been known throughout his career for hit singles — clocking an industry-best 15 number 1 hits — rather than albums that impress from start to finish. But that hasn’t stopped him from selling millions of CDs.
The album is unique, however, for its throwbacks to adored vocalists of old. His resemblance to Al Green on the bluesy track “You Make Me Love You Babe” is uncanny, and his Marvin Gaye imitation on “You Knock Me Out” recall the smooth style of the legend on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” After hearing these songs, listeners seem to completely forget about the charges pending against the artist. In that sense, R. Kelly seems to have achieved more than he could have hoped for.