Turning Up the Heat
IT IS PAST MIDNIGHT, AND R. KELLY IS still at work. But don't feel sorry for him. This graveyard shift, in a Chicago recording studio, features gyrating girls and champagne, and word is in that "Bump n' Grind," Kelly's paean to matters fleshy, has made it to the top of the charts. While choreographing dancers for his current tour with superstar rappers Salt-n-Pepa, the rangy Kelly, 25, waves a bottle. "No. 1 pop," he grins. "I've been celebrating."
There are two creative things to do at night, and writing songs about the other thing is how Kelly spent a large chunk of winter '93. The result is the double-platinum 12 Play, a collection of unsubtle pleasures (including the new single "Your Body's Callin' ") that has hung in the Top 10 since February. "I became very horny and lonely in the studio and took it all out in my music," says Kelly. (Sample lyric: "In an unexpected position/ In a secret fantasy...I will fulfill, as long as you sex me.") Such urges have propelled Kelly, variously writer, musician, producer and dancer, into a Filofax-filling career frenzy that has him remixing Janet Jackson and producing Gladys Knight. They—and the 2.6 million people who have bought 12 Play—all want his explicitly hot touch because, says Kelly, the '90s are about being "more outspoken, more bold." Yet Kelly can (and did) turn around and produce three songs for gospel heavyweights the Winans. "Sex doesn't control me," he says. "Take away the sexy bump and grind and you could easily put in gospel lyrics."
Kelly knows a bunch of those, courtesy of Lena McLin, who headed the music department at Kenwood Academy, a public school on Chicago's South Side. McLin got her hands on Kelly when he was 16 (and still called Robert), after his mother, Joann, a schoolteacher, moved her household of four kids out of the projects. McLin knew what she had. "God put on my heart that he was a genius," she says, "a Stevie Wonder."
McLin made Kelly sing in the school and church choirs and learn piano, brought him to the opera and made him study. "She was my second mother," says Kelly, who lost Joann to cancer in 1993. "She made me feel I could do anything."
By graduation, Kelly knew where he was headed. First he went busking with a portable keyboard under the El and took in up to $400 an afternoon. "I was real hoarse," he says, "but my pockets were fat." With the vocal-dance group MGM, he won the $100,000 grand prize on a syndicated TV show called Big Break. Jive Records soon took notice, signed Kelly in 1990 and released Born into the '90s the following year. It yielded three hit singles and went platinum, yet got little media attention. This time around, Kelly's making sure he's noticed. "Elvis had a magnetism about him with women, and Rob has it too," says Jive's Wayne Williams. "He's a star."
One who talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk—at least not for now. Miraculously, Kelly is single of late, searching, he says, for a muse "I can make love to, who can be my homey and my friend." Save for his gold Toyota Land Cruiser and all things Nike, there is little Kelly wants. "I'm more experienced at not having money," he says. "I'm better at not handling it." When he decides to handle buying a house, he plans to leave his one-bedroom high-rise, but he'll stay in Chicago—"where my mother's memories are," he explains.
Not to mention McLin, who wishes her former pupil was more Stevie and less steamy, and doesn't mind telling him so. "I asked him, 'What is all this sex and mess?' I don't like the language. He can also sing 17th-century Italian love songs."
LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago