It’s as if R. Kelly has stepped out of a time machine. He was previewing his upcoming 12th studio album, “Black Panties,” out Dec. 10 on RCA Records, at New York’s Platinum Studio on Nov. 12, confidently donning an all-black, mostly leather outfit reminiscent of ones he wore in his classic, President Clinton-era R&B videos. But it wasn’t until the singer/songwriter/producer born Robert Kelly hit play that it became clear the music would be a throwback to his younger, racier years as well. “I’m on my Benjamin Button right now. This is the new ’12 Play,'” Kelly says, referring to his 1993 solo debut.
In some ways, R. Kelly’s desire to turn back the clock is surprising: 2013 is shaping up to be an excellent year for him. After collaborating with Lady Gaga on “Do What U Want,” the second single from her Billboard 200-topping new album ARTPOP, he’s appeared with her for two much-talked-about performances on “Saturday Night Live” and the American Music Awards. This week, the single is No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. Kelly also duetted with Justin Bieber on “PYD” (short for “Put You Down”), released Nov. 18 as part of Bieber’s “Music Mondays” series. That song debuts on the Hot 100 at No. 54, with 73,000 sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Earlier this month, Kelly popped up with Pharrell Williams on the remix of Bruno Mars’ “Gorilla.” And in April, he made a surprise appearance during French alt-rock band Phoenix’s headlining Coachella set, performing his 2002 hit “Ignition (Remix).” He also played at Bonnaroo and the Pitchfork Music Festival, both uncharted territory for contemporary R&B. Even after a solo career that’s generated nearly 25 million album sales, R. Kelly is getting some of his biggest looks yet.
“It feels good to still be on people’s mind after 23 years in the business,” R. Kelly told Billboard at the AMAs. “I’ve got all the younger cats following me and calling me to get on their tracks. It’s a blessing.”
It’s a far cry from R. Kelly’s rocky road during the past decade. In 2002, his career took a turn after a videotape that appeared to show him having sex with-and urinating on-a minor surfaced. In 2008, after a six-year investigation and trial, he was acquitted of 14 counts of child pornography. Then, in 2011, he underwent emergency throat surgery to treat an abscess on his vocal cords. Last year he was forced to cancel several TV and promotional appearances for his 2012 album ‘Write Me Back’ and memoir “SoulaCoaster” due to complications from the surgery.
“I was being told I wouldn’t be back in business,” R. Kelly told Billboard a few days before his AMAs appearance. “While that was happening people were bringing me down instead of lifting me up. It pissed me off because when you’re up everyone believes in you, but as soon as they feel your life or career is threatened they fall off from you. They disappear.”
Kellz released three hugely successful solo albums during some of his darkest years: 2003’s “Chocolate Factory” (2.9 million units), 2004 double-album “Happy People/U Saved Me” (1 million) and 2005’s “TP.3 Reloaded” (1.2 million). However, his last two efforts, 2010’s “Love Letter” and “Write Me Back”-which found him exploring throwback soul, with less explicit, more family-friendly lyrics to boot-sold 678,000 and 255,000 copies, respectively. That could be why, despite the sex scandal he’s struggled to put behind him, R. Kelly is looking back to the seductive sounds of “12 Play,” his most successful album to date. It has sold 4 million copies and hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart thanks to singles with telling titles like “Bump n’ Grind,” “Your Body’s Callin'” and “Sex Me Pt. 1 & 2.”
“That’s a very special era for him and a lot of people,” says RCA Records senior VP of A&R Wayne Williams, who signed Kelly to Jive after discovering him at a backyard barbecue in the ’80s. “[‘Black Panties’] is new but it still has the flavor and direction of 12 Play. That’s what’s great about this album.”
Fittingly, R. Kelly came up with the title of “Black Panties” while performing a sexually charged standout from “12 Play.” “I was onstage during the Love Letter tour, and I was singing ‘It Seems Like You’re Ready.’ Every time I perform ‘It Seems Like You’re Ready’ or ‘Your Body’s Callin’,’ panties start flying out of everywhere-seriously,” the singer recalls. “This particular night, a pair of mediums came out of the sky. They were black and they landed on my wrist while I was singing. I looked at them and thought, ‘That’s a sign.’ When I got home I came up with a song titled ‘Black Panties,’ and it felt so good that I went ahead and made a whole album.”
The 13-song full-length features R. Kelly being R. Kelly: laying salacious lyricism and singing soulfully over a bed of silky, bass-heavy soundscapes and harmonies reminiscent of ’90s R&B. The songs deliver as much raunchiness as their titles: “Marry the Pussy,” “Legs Shakin'” and “Crazy Sex.” There are guest features from Kelly Rowland, Ludacris, 2 Chainz and Young Jeezy.
R. Kelly has looked to his first album for creative fuel before. Both 2000’s “TP2.com,” which has sold 4 million, and “TP.3 Reloaded” were billed as sequels. In 2008, Kelly announced another installment, “12 Play: Fourth Quarter.” While songs from the album, like “Hair Braider” and “Screamer,” leaked, the album was never released. But in light of the current popularity of reality TV and social media, Williams points out, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for Kelly’s racy re-emergence on “Black Panties.” “We’re in the no-filter time,” he says. “That’s what’s current. And quite honestly, Robert is the king of no filter. It’s almost like time has caught up with his artistry.”
R. Kelly agrees, noting that several of today’s R&B and hip-hop stars are influenced by his signature sound. “Trying to come back with the ‘Black Panties’ album, I hadn’t done this type of music in three years, so I was studying music,” he says. “And I came to find that people have been studying me. I’m seeing Trey Songz, who is very talented; The-Dream, who is very talented; rappers like Future. A lot of my style was on a lot of other people’s music. They flipped it very well, but I needed to flip it back to me.”
RCA senior VP of marketing Carolyn Williams says the music, and R. Kelly himself, have dictated the marketing campaign behind the album. “He came to RCA a few months ago, in the early stages of the project, and did a playback for us,” she recalls. “He talked about the origin of the title, where he’s at now and how important it was going back to his 12 Play days. After he played eight tracks, everybody in the room not only got it, but they became champions.”
Williams adds that R. Kelly’s openness in promoting “Black Panties” has been equal to his openness on the album itself. “[With] the last two projects, it came to my attention that people saw him as elusive. But with this one, they feel like they can touch him and have access to him-that all helps understanding the project. [He’s] making himself available. He told us, ‘[I want to] work this album. I want to be competitive.'”
RCA chose to release three singles-“My Story,” “Genius” and “Cookie”-before the album’s release to appeal to his diverse audience. “It was really important to Robert and us to expose as much music as we could prior to the street date, without giving away the whole album,” Carolyn Williams says. “We put out ‘My Story’ as the launch single at mainstream music. We also put out ‘Genius’ at [adult R&B] to serve another part of his core-that’s a classic R. Kelly record. We just launched ‘Cookie,’ which is a [mainstream R&B] record. Having those three different types of singles, prior to street date, has helped us-there’s something for everyone.” “My Story” has been the most successful, hitting a new peak at No. 10 on Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop and selling 88,000 to date. “Genius,” which has sold 13,000, peaked at No. 10 on the Adult R&B chart on Nov. 30.
R. Kelly will also tour the album early next year, and plans to hit the festival circuit again are being discussed. Besides his recent performances on “Saturday Night Live” and the AMAs, Kelly has also booked appearances on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The View.” Carolyn Williams says the label is also banking on a strong social-media push, revealing song previews and racy album visuals to his 3.3 million Facebook fans, 5.2 million Twitter followers and 196,000 Instagram followers. “How can you not have fun with an album called ‘Black Panties’?” she says. A particularly notable spike in social activity occurred Nov. 18, when there was a 283% bump of mentions of Kelly coinciding with the release of his Bieber duet.
In the meantime, those fateful flying panties that led to his new album continue to provide inspiration.
“I’m already working on my next album, which I’m six songs deep into. I haven’t named it yet, but it’s going to be a follow-up to ‘Black Panties,'” Kelly says, adding that he soon plans to film 10 more installments to his cult-favorite “Trapped in the Closet” video series. “I’m going to start putting out music like Jordans after ‘Black Panties.’ I don’t want people to get it twisted: R. Kelly is going to be R. Kelly.”