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R. Kelly Talks ‘Black Panties,’ Mastering Sex Songs & Childhood Memories [Exclusive Interview]

R. Kelly
Mark Davis, Getty Images

R. Kelly is the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R&B” and he’s earned his loyal following because he’s provocative, bold, and uniquely talented. For two decades he has given us baby-making music, spirit-lifting pop songs, hip-hop-inflected party anthems and even musical theater with his ‘Trapped in the Closet’ series. With his latest opus, ‘Black Panties,’ on the way, the R. speaks to The Boombox about the album and takes a look back at his exceptional music career.

The Boombox: It’s been 20 years since ’12 Play’ dropped. Did you ever think you would still be relevant or considered a legend in the music business this far down the line?

R. Kelly: I didn’t see this kind of longevity, but I just knew I had a lot of energy and [I've] still got a lot of energy to this day. [I] just love this damn music, man. I never wanted to be, or never set out to be, an artist that was here today and gone tomorrow — a one-hit-wonder — but I didn’t anticipate [being in the music business for] 20 something years.

There’s some controversy about whether ‘Born Into the 90′s’ should be considered your debut album or not since you did it with your old group Public Announcement. Do you consider it to be your first?

I would say that’s my first album, because it was, but ’12 Play’ is something that really [put] me on the landing strip of music in the industry. But, [when it comes to] ‘Born Into the 90′s,’ I can’t really count it out because it started me off.

You’ve had a lot of hits and No. 1 singles over the past two decades. What do you consider the greatest song of your career?

‘Ignition’ came to my mind first, so I’ll go with ‘Ignition (Remix),’ man. ‘Ignition’ is something that came out and ignited. It just went everywhere. Everybody loved it. It became a global type of fun song — sexual, but fun.

Watch R. Kelly’s ‘Ignition (Remix)’ Video

When you came into the game, you were immediately labeled a sex symbol because of the music you made. Since 1992, you’ve come up with a million ways to allude to sex and describe women. Do you think you’ll ever run out of metaphors for the two?

No. My mom used to tell me as long as you continue to write life and not songs you’ll always be in the game for life. These songs I write and try to put together, yeah, they’re metaphors, but they’re metaphors speaking to sexuality and life at the same time. So once you’re able to somehow put a melody to that and put it on a beat, you’re gonna win.

What do you think is the best metaphor for sex you’ve ever created?

To me, I love a song that I [did] — metaphor wise — called ‘Remote.’ I went and got a remote out of my living room and took it down to my studio, and I said, “I’m gonna write a song about the remote control.” As I looked at the buttons, I would try to figure out how to relate these buttons to metaphors as far as music and lyrics and put them in a song. I started seeing the buttons like “control,” “volume,” “mute” and things like that, and I said, “Wow. I can make this a song.” Once I started it just kept on going, and it just kept working for me. The metaphors just started coming together.

Here’s something fans have always wanted to know: do you ever have sex to your own music?

Oh, yeah! [Laughs]. I have a few times in my life.

What’s your favorite song to play to make her love come down?

My song is ‘Seems Like You’re Ready.’ ‘Seems Like You’re Ready’ is one of my favorites, hands down. It’s not just sexy, it’s sensuous. Whenever you put it on — now or then — it snatches you into the mood. You don’t have to listen to the lyrics right away, but as soon as it comes on, the music tells you it’s going down. It’s like, break out the candles, champagne, whatever you wanna do, but it’s going down.

Your new album is called, ‘Black Panties.’ Why not red panties or pink panties?

When I was [onstage] singing ‘Seems Like You’re Ready,’ on my Love Letter tour, the panties was flying and coming up on the stage and out of no where. I think it was a pair of mediums that landed on my wrist and my microphone. Immediately I had an idea to write a song called ‘Black Panties’ because it was a pair of black panties, lace-like. When I got back home, I wrote [the] song and then I just decided to do a whole album called ‘Black Panties.’ I never steered away from the name.

We’ve gotta ask, were the panties thrown at you boy shorts, hip huggers or bikini cut?

They were bikini.

Even though you’ve called this album “the new ’12 Play,’” somewhere along the way in your career you found a way to move away from being seen solely as the singer with the sexual lyrics. You found a way to show versatility. How did you make that transition, and show people that you were about more than just sex?

When ‘Honey Love’ came out, it started setting that tone as far as the sexual songs. And before you knew it, I was this sexual guy that just did sexual songs. I was like, “No, no, that’s not me. I do do other things.” So I became, not [necessarily] desperate to put out the fact that I could do other [kinds of] songs, — but I really wanted the world to know that I do pop songs, country songs and all kinds of things. But certain people in the company at the time wasn’t really trying to hear me doing country or pop or anything like that — they wanted to keep me R&B so I just kept coming out with these R&B albums.

Watch R. Kelly’s Honey Love’ Video

Knowing you made it through that and now having 12 albums to show for your success, do you ever look back and remember just dancing and singing around the house for fun with no intention of being a star?

Oh yeah. [With] my mom, my brothers and sister — we were behind my mom at the time — we would do background for her because she was a singer. I would never be on no solo tip back then. I was really just too shy to be really singing in front of people like that when first starting off. But I would definitely get behind my mother, and they would call us “Gladys Knight & the Pimps.” We were out there doing our thing, and having fun that way.

It’s hard to look at you as ever being an introvert. When do you think you got over being shy?

The day my teacher in high school put me on the stage in front of like 500 people in a talent show. That was my first time being in front of people. She made me put on some glasses because I told her I wasn’t gonna be able to look them in the face. But when I put the glasses on, I just acted like I was blind, and I was doing Stevie Wonder ‘Ribbon In the Sky.’ From the minute I started singin’, all the girls started screamin’, and I didn’t know what had happened. So when I opened my eyes, it turns out they were really screaming for me, and I was like, ‘Wow! This is a feeling I have to have again. What do I need to do to get this feeling again?’ So I’ve been pretty much chasing that [feeling] ever since.

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