ow I’m no legal expert, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re an internationally recognized pop star, and you have a pending trial for child pornography and statutory rape, it’s probably not the best idea to have the title of your most recent album connote having sex with two girls at the same time. But R. Kelly doesn’t live by our “laws.” It’s quite possible that he feels that he’s above them, and it’s even more plausible that he just doesn’t live in our society, let alone our world. Judging by his past work, this makes a lot of sense. In the Kellz’s insular, superficial, and product-obsessed universe, there are only a couple of basic rules: that we will party, that there will be bottles of either Petrón, Grey Goose, Belvedere, Bacardi, or Hennessey, that we will be riding in a drop-top or an Escalade, that “trees” will be smoked, and that by the end of the night, R. Kelly will probably be sleeping with your girlfriend(s).
The truth is that the universe Kelly lives in is a lot funnier than it is sad, pathetic, or distasteful. It is all of those things, but as a secondhand observer, it’s difficult to imagine that the first physical reaction produced while listening to “The Champ,” the ludicrously self-aggrandizing introduction to Double Up, isn’t one of laughter. He begins with accusations (“All y’all wanna pile on me make it hard for me to breathe / Throw sand in my eyes and make it hard for me to see”), proceeds to detail his hardships (“I’ve been through hell, lived in the belly of the beast / I’ve confessed my sins but still didn’t find peace”), and then offers up puzzling metaphors for his detractors (“I’m pregnant by the game,” “I’m about to shoot the world up with this lyrical cocaine”).
But if it was forced to rely on its sense of humor in order to win over listeners, Double Up would be a tremendous failure, something that it most certainly is not. Instead, it’s the most consistently entertaining and lasting of R. Kelly’s albums yet—particularly impressive because of its length, running just shy of the eighty-minute mark and sporting a whopping nineteen tracks with no skits. A considerable factor is its unfailing production, sporting everything from sunshine pop (“Freaky in the Club”), huge, cavernous driving songs (“Get Dirty,” “Rollin’”), club jams (the title track, the irrepressible “I’m a Flirt (Remix)”), slinky R&B (“The Zoo”), and gospel (“Rise Up”). There are also a number of high-profile guest appearances, including T.I., Nelly, Snoop Dogg, Chamillionaire, Ludacris, Usher, Keyshia Cole, and even Kid Rock.
Those elements, though, are slightly irrelevant—all R. Kelly albums have had A-list guests and sharp production. The difference lies in the fact that Kellz uses each song as a conceptual springboard to indulge in his most outlandish fantasies, peculiar sentiments, and bizarre scenarios, inspiration he probably found in the massive success of “Trapped in the Closet.” On “The Zoo,” over sweltering wah-wah guitar, bongos, and background noises of bird chirps and monkey screeches, he compares his sexual escapades to animals in the jungle. Then there’s “Leave Your Name,” in which what begins as his answering machine message devolves into the man in question detailing the consequences of his getting intoxicated, whether it involves getting in fights at the club or passing out on the stairs on the way to his apartment.
By employing these concepts (whether or not he’s aware of it), he lampoons and exaggerates the many clichés of modern-day R&B, blowing up his libido until it engulfs him, making sour relationships unbearable, and using musical backdrops as comedic tools and catchy melodies in equal amounts. It’s debatable that the image Kellz presents to his listeners is a conscious attempt to create an artistic identity for himself that exists outside of his real life, but the album’s closing tracks give need for pause. “Rise Up,” a spiritual song dedicated to the families of the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre, and “I Like Love,” a joyous Calypso closer, show that sometimes the illustration becomes so immense that we fail to see what’s underneath.