You Are Not Alone, I Am Here With You In what is likely the last text Roland Barthes wrote – a speculation on the (im)possibility of communicating love, filtered through the lens of Stendhal – one finds the following line: “...we are entitled to repeat mournfully (or tragically) that one always fails in speaking of what one loves.” It gets me every time. The combination of wistful romance and resigned acceptance in that sentence is almost too much to bear: who hasn't felt the crushing weight of why? that accompanies so many declarations of love? And that why? is an honest question I think, regardless of intent and even in cases of maudlin selfreflectivity: “I know I'm unlovable, you don't have to tell me.” And so, precognizant of my own historical propensity towards inadequacy in answering that question, I will essay nonetheless. Few are willing to consider the complex artistry of Robert Sylvester Kelly. Frequently cast as court jester – and whether or not we want to subscribe to any of the apocryphal ideas surrounding the role of jester as radical truth teller is a discussion beyond the scope of this essay – beside other, allegedly more serious, R&B performers, R. Kelly – known variously as “Kells,” “Keys,” “R(dot),” “The Weatherman,” “The Pied Piper,” and “The King of R&B” – is a prolific and rigorous artist. While there are only so many hours in the day, I find myself thinking about Kelly's work during many of them. In the midst of a conversation with another artist several months ago, I kept stumbling upon a particular kind of slippery defensiveness in his response to questions about his projects. Finally, he admitted that his desire was to have the viewer understand how he thinks about things. I heard those words and my heart knew, suddenly, what his work was about; I knew what he really meant. He wanted the viewer to love him. The vulnerability of this position was terrifying, the resulting verbal head fakes his only recourse. For whom else besides our beloveds do we care or even consider the thought process? There is a distinction here that I think is crucial – while there are many artists whose output engages and inspires me, there is no other whose mind and process I am more curious about. In all of Kelly's songs, there is a deep and lingering underlying sadness, even in the most effervescent of his pop hits. These are the songs of a man who wants, more than anything, to be loved. Some examples: Once, driving across town with my best friend, and listening to A.M. 860, “The People's Station,” because we are of The People, a song came on. The silky spoken-word introduction didn't register, and we continued our conversation, oblivious, until the opening line: “Abracadabra, form of a bedroom.” We floated, incredulous, in a liminal space for several lines until “Hocus-pocus, now you in that cute little dress that I like” confirmed that yes, this man singing was most certainly singing about Magic, utilizing vocabulary more often heard at children's parties than in the bedroom, but no, that did not appear to be hindering the delivery of his message. The kinds of magic referenced throughout include psychic powers, an elaborate game of peek-a-boo, illusion, sleight of hand, conjuring tricks, and the wish-granting ability of genies. Performed by Charlie Wilson, former leader of The Gap Band, “Magic” still wears the indelible stamp of R. Kelly. While initially baffling, Kelly's song contains an inarguable internal logic. It might be simply talking about the alchemy of love, and the mysterious forces that draw us to another, fulfilling all the standard expectations of a slow jam. Love is frequently enigmatic, to be able to explicate it is to in some way destroy it, much in the way that once the secret of a magic trick is revealed, the amazement disappears, the magic dies. While there are hints of potential darkness
in the chorus, “I'll perform a trick on you/Girl, 'cause I can do/Magic,” it is easy to dismiss it as the ultimate sexual swagger. The real trick of this song is the final line of “Abracadabra/hoc-i-uspocus/Now we are married/For evermore...” Kelly places the crux of his message into the fade-out, traditionally a strategy for ending a song with no obvious ending, a location of disregard, and that is the most telling of all – a belief that what is for many the ne plus ultra expression of love, marriage, can only be obtained through supernatural means. In the classic player-gets-played-by-the-game trope of “Same Girl,” Kells telephones Ush to gently brag about his latest love affair, only to discover that Usher knows this girl “like a pastor know his word,” that is to say, biblically. The listener's pleasure in the song is two-fold, as we are allowed the privilege of listening in on an ostensibly private conversation, along with the increasingly fraught realization the accumulating revelations afford, as they unfold in real time. A plot is hatched, involving listening in on a second telephone line, making a date for which both men show up, and culminating with the “potential wife” in question “looking so stupid when she see us together.” Revenge nonpareil. But then, the video. Knowing, as we do, Kelly's love of a cliffhanger, we watch the drama unfold with baited breath, noting the subtle twinning of the two protagonists, who somehow have more matching outfits than junior high BFF's. Kelly, master of the many subtle facial variations of so hurt/so confused, conveys his absolute inability to believe that he and Usher have been “messing with the same girl,” necessitating a flight to Atlanta, conciliatory handshake and chest bump, and extended tête-à-tête beginning in the car before moving on to brandies in front of the fire. Reconciled with his boy, and having made gleeful plans of retribution over a game of one-on-one, the video makes what amounts to a significant leap of faith. Rather than abandoning Kelly in the doldrums, his hopes of marriage (again) dashed against the rocks, otherworldly powers are implicitly called upon. Against all odds, his wish for love is granted in the form of an identical twin. The implausibility of these circumstances – that these twins are so identical they share the same name, address, history, vehicle and accompanying vanity license plate, tattoo, and phones – is sublimated in order to provide a resolution of the metanarrative. Finally, in his cover of “You Are Not Alone,” a bonus track on Kelly's most recent album Love Letter, we hear Robert singing a song immediately recognizable from the late-era Michael Jackson canon. However, this song was in fact written by Kelly for Jackson. Although the Love Letter album contains another song intended for Jackson – “Not Feeling the Love,” – it becomes quickly apparent that Kelly is not merely recording his own version of “You Are Not Alone,” but is actually singing the song to Jackson's ghost. “Not Feeling the Love” is merely a dedication, in an album full of dedications; “You Are Not Alone” is Kelly's attempt to communicate beyond the grave. There is a certain keening quality in the vocalization that is unmistakable – there should be no doubt: Kelly can sing the shit out of nearly anything at this point, he is nothing if not master of his vocal domain. The weight and poignance of this action, which is, essentially, that of a man, an international pop superstar with a deeply problematic personal history, singing a self-penned love ballad to an eidolon of arguably the most famous tragic pop star of all time as if his life depended on it, nears the Sublime. And it is here, on that threshold, staring in the face of a gesture so majestic that to fully comprehend it might kill me, that words deteriorate, that language becomes inadequate, and that I fail.
Published on Jan 2, 2013