The New Indelibility: R. Kelly, From 'The Buffet' to That Interview Walk Out
R. Kelly has been, despite years of controversy stemming from sexual abuse allegations, unrepentant. The web won't forget.
With all the modesty and reserve of a slow jam inspired by one's Jeep, R. Kelly made a public spectacle of himself on Dec. 21. During a live video interview with HuffPost Live's Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, the R&B auteur abruptly walked off the set after a question about whether he has "a healthy relationship with sex." Earlier, when asked about accusations of having sex with underage girls, the 48-year-old gave a rambling answer capped by references to the McRib and playing basketball.
Kelly also questioned the interviewer's intelligence, asked if she gets blackout drunk and said "fuck that" to the idea that his personal behavior puts fans off of his songs like "Ignition (Remix)" or "I Believe I Can Fly." He commented on Modarressy-Tehrani's appearance, too, and dismissed her line of inquiry as a "deposition -- do you know what a deposition is?" While Kelly's spokesperson didn't respond to Billboard's requests for comment prior to deadline, Kelly's Twitter account on Dec. 22 posted an image of the singer, wearing shades and encircled by cigar smoke, with an enigmatic message: "It just wouldn't be a picnic without the ants!"
The self-proclaimed Pied Piper of R&B's defiant HuffPost Live appearance came just 10 days after the release of Kelly's latest album, The Buffet. This more eclectic follow-up to 2013's single-mindedly filthy Black Panties debuted at No. 16 on the Billboard 200 -- which, barring a later surge, would be the lowest chart peak for a Kelly non-remix album since his 1992 debut with back-up group Public Announcement, Born Into the 90's. The unusually low chart placement also followed a since-removed video plea for fans to buy the album. Public relations veterans say it may be time for the triple-Grammy winner to recognize the gravity of his situation.
The calculus for Kelly shifted after a Nov. 15 New York magazine profile by David Marchese, says Jennifer Williams, a music publicist and crisis management advisor who represents T-Pain. Kelly, asked point-blank if he has an attraction to underage girls, told New York, "That's a rumor that comes from the Earth, like all rumors," before denying such speculation. Williams says the heated discussion rekindled by the piece "instantly shifted R. Kelly's PR campaign from that of a traditional album rollout to now also a crisis management issue."
Asked by Billboard earlier this month, R. Kelly's former publicist Kristen Foster said it was necessary to "figure out who were the champions and who were the haters... he certainly has both."
The actions needed to manage a crisis can run counter to what's best for publicizing an album. In many cases that might mean fewer interviews or a different approach to deciding which outlets, if any, get access, says Williams, CEO of J Sharpe Agency Public Relations. "HuffPost Live is fantastic," she tells Billboard, "but if an artist has a cloud of heavily discussed allegations swirling around them that they aren't willing to address, then you don't go on a show known for asking hard-hitting questions and audience questions that can take the conversation anywhere."
Howard Bragman, a longtime crisis manager who has worked with Monica Lewinsky and Chaz Bono, says artists' camps shouldn't be surprised when journalists raise controversial issues. "Google ‘R. Kelly,'" says Bragman, chairman of Fifteen Minutes Public Relations. "This question is out there."
When a contentious matter does come up, Bragman adds, celebrities should be prepared to respond. "Because he made such an issue out of it, he made it a bigger story, which you don't want to do," he tells Billboard. "The more innocuously you answer it, the better off you're going to be in the long run."
Nor did it help that Kelly missed a scheduled Dec. 17 performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, says Keith Hagan, who represents Kenny Rogers. While ABC representatives didn't comment to Billboard, one previously told The Chicago Tribune that the singer canceled because he wasn't feeling well. "It's never good form to book a performance on a show and cancel due to ‘illness or whatever,'" says Hagan, co-owner of publicity and management firm SKH Music. "Bad form all around."
Kimmel isn't all. Though Kelly and Jeremih are both guests on their fellow Chicago artist Chance the Rapper's new track "Somewhere in Paradise," Jeremih was the only one of the two to join Chance for the song's Dec. 12 Saturday Night Live premiere. An NBC spokesperson directed questions to Chance. His management didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Prior to The Buffet's release, Kelly mainly passed through publicity opportunities without incident. He performed a medley on The Tonight Show. He sang the national anthem and sank a three-pointer at a Brooklyn Nets home game. He closed out the Soul Train Awards. And he gave interviews -- to Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and, yes, Billboard -- that ran without references to the allegations first reported in the Chicago Sun Times by Jim DeRogatis and amplified two years ago in The Village Voice by Jessica Hopper. (Kelly, who was acquitted in 2008 in a child pornography case, has reportedly settled numerous sex-related lawsuits.)
As The Buffet lags on the charts, Kelly can still look to ticket sales, at least for now. A Sept. 25 concert at Brooklyn's Barclays Center alone grossed more than $1 million on sellout attendance of 11,833, according to Billboard Boxscore; arena sellouts in Newark on July 18 ($856,732; 8,875) and Inglewood, Calif., on Oct. 10 ($614,090; 6,939) weren't far behind.
DeRogatis asked New York why Kelly hasn't "reached a [Bill] Cosby-style tipping point." Some social media users were indeed quick to note that the same day Kelly was bristling at questions involving his alleged sexual misdeeds, the comedian filed a defamation lawsuit against one of his accusers. Whatever else might be said, the social-media era has clearly given accusations against stars a new megaphone and length of life, however fervently the accusations are denied or ignored.
Is it possible Kelly's widely criticized interview exit could have been a form of commercial jujitsu: a sneakily brilliant attempt to rally his album-buying base against perceived media injustices? "I don't think R. Kelly wants this," says Bragman, the crisis management vet. "If anybody thinks this will sell more R. Kelly albums they're on crack. This is just a world where we get caught more."