For the past 10 years, the R&B singer has been one of the most reliable punchlines in pop culture. His sex scandal inspired one of the best Chappelle's Show sketches of all time, while his "hip hopera" Trapped in the Closet took domestic melodrama to such heights of ridiculousness that most of its fans couldn't believe that Kelly was in on the joke. Add in songs like "Sex Planet," whose lyrics often speak for themselves, and the R. Kelly image was set: a cartoonish sex fiend unaware of how bizarre his ideas played outside his own fantasies.
A natural showman, Kelly doesn't seem to mind the stereotypes, but the storm of all of these crazy stories about the singer can obscure one very important fact: R. Kelly is very good at his job.
Fortunately, this year may mark the reversal of that trend. The first inkling that we were in for an R. Kelly renaissance came in January, when Kelly's dorm-room classic "Ignition (Remix)" celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Suddenly there were critical reappraisals, and even an ambitious campaign for the song to replace "The Star-Spangled Banner" as America's national anthem. For perhaps the first time, it was possible to talk about R. Kelly on the Internet without anyone cracking a joke about pee.
Then, this weekend, Kelly broke out a one-two punch of awesomeness. First, he showed up on Saturday Night Live to perform "Do What U Want," his ARTPOP duet with Lady Gaga. While Gaga vamped through the opening verse of the song like a Broadway diva, Kelly's entrance brought the performance into a lustier, more human place:
Then on Sunday night, Kelly made a featured appearance on Justin Bieber's latest Music Mondays track, "PYD," a smooth sex jam heavily influenced by Kelly's own work. After some Bieber crooning, Kelly's verse shows a fatherly pride; it's like he taught the young Canadian everything he knows.
If Kelly keeps this up, the "R. Kelly's sheets" joke in "Thrift Shop" may be the last one we get for a while.