IN THE 20 YEARS SINCE HIS DEBUT SOLO ALBUM, 12 PLAY, THE KING OF R&B HAS WORN A HEAVY CROWN. THROUGH LEGAL TROUBLES, SEX SCANDALS, AND A SURGERY THAT ALMOST COST HIM HIS VOICE, R. KELLY HAS ENDURED BY SUBVERTING EXPECTATIONS AND ENTERTAINING US WITH A HOST OF THEATRICS, LEADING TO OVER 50 MILLION ALBUMS SOLD. IN AN INTIMATE SHOOT WITH SUPERMODEL IRINA SHAYK, HE’S STILL PROVING THAT THERE AIN’T NOTHING WRONG WITH A LITTLE BUMP ‘N’ GRIND
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When a pop megastar enters the room, there can be a strange satisfaction in seeing a king-size entourage in tow. On a crisp December afternoon at a studio in SoHo, the elevator doors part and R. Kelly swoops onto the premises, adorned in Versace sunglasses and an enormous fur-trimmed coat. He’s flanked by so many managers, bodyguards, and assorted personnel it’s nearly impossible to get an adequate glimpse of him. In the age of social media, when being accessible is increasingly in vogue, the R&B titan represents an almost antiquated brand of celebrity excess, one that hearkens back to the early-’90s MTV heyday in which he first made his name. During negotiations for this story, publicist Theola Borden lamented that to keep R. Kelly in town costs an average of $22,000 a night. His hospitality rider includes a dozen long-stemmed red roses, 24 black towels, broiled lobster, Grey Goose vodka, Hennessy cognac, and Moet & Chandon champagne. While on set, I make the mistake of looking at him when he bursts into a bit of song in his dressing room, and a visibly haggard staffer frantically ushers me out of sight. Suffice it to say, when it comes to being the King of R&B, Robert Sylvester Kelly is not in the business of being subtle.
“Musically and creatively I feel like I’m a survivor,” the superstar tells me a few weeks later, over the phone, from the comfort of his tour bus. He’s en route from Detroit, where he played on New Year’s Eve, to his home in Atlanta, where he primarily resides. In conversation he’s affable, generous with his time, and surprisingly easygoing. “I do what I have to do to excite the crowd. I do whatever it takes to raise eyebrows and to win.” This is a tactic employed since the beginning of his career, when he debuted with his singing group Public Announcement, in 1992. His A&R executive, Wayne Williams, recalls seeing them perform at a backyard barbecue in 1990 and knowing that Kelly was born for the stage.