In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Fuck. OK. Here we go. Shit.
There is nothing inherently moral about pop music. To make a successful pop song, you have to tap into the sounds and ideas and feeling of a particular moment. You do not have to be a good person. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that you might be more successful if you’re not a good person and that success will enable you to get away with some severely heinous shit. This column has covered murderers, rapists, thieves, domestic abusers, and other assorted monsters. The last entry in this column was about a group that included a former Nazi bonehead in its ranks. But even among this mob of shady characters, R. Kelly stands out.
Most of the time, I can write about these songs and about the lives of the people who made them, and those lives, no matter how sordid, won’t have a huge effect on my feelings about the songs. John Phillips’ daughter has said that her father drugged and raped her on the night before her wedding and that he went on to have an 11-year incestuous affair with her. I still think “Monday, Monday” is a good song. Peter Yarrow was convicted of molesting a 14-year-old girl and then later pardoned by Jimmy Carter. I still think “Leaving On A Jet Plane” is a good song. Those songs came out years before I was born, and it’s never been a huge mental leap to separate those songs from the people who made them. R. Kelly is a different story.
Time and doubt can shade and obscure the stories about pop stars being terrible people. That doesn’t happen with R. Kelly. Just last year, Kelly was finally convicted of crimes including kidnapping, racketeering, sex trafficking, and sexual exploitation of a child. We don’t have to use the word “alleged” when discussing Kelly’s offenses; at least some of those offenses are a matter of public record. Kelly’s crimes are part of a pattern that goes back to the years when he first became famous, and he’s lived like this in front of the entire public. It was right there for us.
Ever since I started writing this column a few years ago, I’ve been dreading the moment when I would have to engage with R. Kelly. Part of that is the sheer volume and severity of Kelly’s crimes, the many lives ruined. But part of it is also that I feel complicit in the whole R. Kelly story. As a writer, I’ve been responsible for propping up the whole R. Kelly operation, even after he first faced trial for child pornography. I’ve endorsed his music even when I should’ve known better. That’s on me.
I’ve gone back and read some of the stuff I wrote about Kelly in the past, and I can at least say that I used some level of scrutiny when talking about him and his crimes. It wasn’t enough, though. It’s not that I personally extended Kelly’s career and his ability to victimize women, but I sure didn’t do anything to stop it. When the Chicago writer Jim DeRogatis was criticizing Pitchfork, my former place of employment, for booking Kelly to headline its annual festival, I scoffed and rolled my eyes. I didn’t work at Pitchfork anymore when they booked Kelly, and I didn’t go to that festival, but I did think that DeRogatis was trying to spoil everyone’s fun. Today, DeRogatis is an acknowledged journalistic hero, and I feel like an asshole for not taking his reports seriously. With R. Kelly, I was part of the problem. So when I look at Kelly’s extremely long stretch of success and criminal exploitation, my own regret becomes a major factor. It’s something that I can’t escape.
I’ve written laudatory pieces about plenty of musicians who have done terrible things. Right now, for instance, T.I. is facing criminal investigations for a pattern of alleged sexual offenses that appear positively Cosby-esque. T.I. will eventually appear in this column, and he was once one of my favorite rappers. I’ve written many thousands of words in praise of T.I.’s music, and I don’t regret that in the same way that I regret the Kelly stuff. T.I. never rapped about being a guy who drugged and assaulted women. Kelly, on the other hand, has always presented himself as an uncontrollable sex freak. It’s right there in the first line of his first #1 hit. For many years, R. Kelly told us exactly who he was. I should’ve listened.
The famous first line of Kelly’s “Bump N’ Grind,” Kelly’s first chart-topper, speaks volumes: “My mind is telling me no, but my body! My body’s telling me yes!” It’s not immoral to write about sexual desperation or need, and Kelly’s opening line is not a confession. But if you were paying attention to R. Kelly’s music and persona, then the accusations against him shouldn’t have been a shock. In “Bump N’ Grind,” Kelly sang, again and again, that he didn’t see nothin’ wrong with a little bump n’ grind. Given what we now know about Kelly’s life, there was so much wrong with the way he serviced his own appetites. At this point, “Bump N’ Grind” sounds less like a pop song and more like a grim affirmation of a sociopathic point of view.
Robert Sylvester Kelly, the son of a schoolteacher mother and an absent father, grew up poor in a South Side Chicago housing project. (When Kelly was born, the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer” was the #1 song in America.) Kelly had a terrible childhood. He later claimed that he was sexually abused as a child — first by an older half-sister, then by a male friend of the family. He was also shot in the shoulder at age 11, though the details of that shooting remain murky. (Kelly says that he was shot by kids who wanted to steal his bike; a relative later claimed that it was a suicide attempt.) Because of a bad case of dyslexia, Kelly also couldn’t read or write. But he could sing.
Kelly started singing in church as a kid. At 14, a music teacher encouraged him to perform at a talent show. Despite his own shyness, Kelly sang Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon In The Sky,” and he won the competition. After dropping out of high school, Kelly sang for spare change in Chicago L stations. In 1989, he formed a new jack swing group called MGM, and they won the grand prize on a syndicated game show called Big Break. Afterwards, MGM released one single. It didn’t go anywhere, and the group broke up.
Around that time, an entertainment lawyer named Barry Hankerson heard about Kelly and flew out to Chicago to hear him sing. Hankerson, ex-husband of former Number Ones artist Gladys Knight, was auditioning Kelly for a role in The First Lady, a musical that he was putting together. When he heard Kelly sing “Ribbon In The Sky,” though, Hankerson signed on to become Kelly’s manager, and he got Kelly signed to Jive Records. At the time, Hankerson thought that Kelly would be most successful as the leader of a group, so he teamed Kelly up with three backup singers and dancers. The group was called Public Announcement, and they released their debut album Born Into The ’90s in 1992.
Kelly was always the clear focal point of Public Announcement. He was a can’t-miss prospect. He could sing, dance, write, produce, and put on a show. Kelly wrote and produced every track on Born Into The ’90s, often without assistance. The album eventually went platinum, and two of its singles topped the Billboard R&B chart. On the Hot 100, though, Public Announcement couldn’t get past the lower reaches of the top 40. “Dedicated,” their biggest single, peaked at #31. (Later on, another former Public Announcement member rebooted the group without Kelly, and that new version of Public Announcement peaked at #5 with the 1998 single “Body Bumpin’ (Yippie-Yi-Yo).” It’s a 4.)
By most accounts, Kelly started using his new celebrity to take advantage of underage girls as soon as Public Announcement blew up. In 1998, Kelly settled a lawsuit from a woman who claimed that he’d had sex with her and pressured her to recruit her friends for group sex as early as 1991, when she was 15. From all available evidence, it seems like Kelly got away with all of this because he was making money for people and because it seemed like he would keep making money for people. Already, R. Kelly was a star.
Kelly’s time with Public Announcement didn’t last long. In 1993, he split away from the group and released “Sex Me,” his first solo single. “Sex Me” was a mission statement for Kelly’s early solo career. It’s a raunchy slow jam about feeling freaky and wanting sex tonight: “Come over here and let me take off your clothes/ Things I wanna do to you, nobody has to know.” “Sex Me” was a bigger hit than any of Kelly’s Public Announcement songs, and it peaked at #20 on the Hot 100.
“Sex Me” set the template for 12 Play, the solo debut that R. Kelly released in November of 1993. 12 Play has 12 songs, and all of them are about sex: “Your Body’s Callin’,” “It Seems Like You’re Ready,” “I Like The Crotch On You.” All of this was perfectly in line with where R&B was going. Kelly’s peers, groups like Jodeci and Silk, sang about sex with single-minded religious devotion. 12 Play — the title meant foreplay times three — was a heightened version of all of that. Kelly produced every song, and he wrote everything except the cover of the Spinners’ “Sadie.” 12 Play is practically a concept album, and it keeps its focus on horny slow jams. “Bump N’ Grind” might be the simplest and most focused of all of them.
Kelly famously opens “Bump N’ Grind” with that a cappella line about his mind telling him no and his body telling him yes. He sings that line with passionate fervor, his voice climbing and rasping and wobbling. When the beat kicks in, it’s loose and warm, built around a slow and mechanical drum-thwack. The strings and guitars sound ecstatically fake, and the synth-whistle evokes G-funk without the cinematic menace. The backing vocals repeat the same refrain over and over — “I don’t see nothin’ wrong with a little bump n’ grind” — in a sort of mocking playground cadence. Kelly howls and moans and testifies all over the track, insisting again and again that he’ll change your entire life with the sheer power of his sex: “You say he’s not treating you right/ Then, lady, spend the night/ I’ll love you like you need to be loved.”
Kelly wrote some remarkable pop songs over the course of his career, but “Bump N’ Grind” is not one of them. The song got some juice out of its sheer audacity, Kelly offering up gospel-style devotionals about fucking. But the song itself is almost maddeningly repetitive, and at a certain point, its slowness becomes torturous. Maybe Kelly realized this, since a couple of marginally more interesting remixes eventually became the definitive versions of the song. (The video up there is all out of sync because someone edited in the album version of “Bump N’ Grind” even though the video was originally set to the song’s How I Feel It Extended Mix.) “Bump N’ Grind” offers plenty of evidence that Kelly can sing, and it definitely works as utilitarian dirty-dancing music, but I always found the song itself stultifyingly boring. Given what we now know about Kelly, it’s still boring, but it’s also disturbing. That’s a bad combination.
“Bump N’ Grind” was originally supposed to appear on the soundtrack to the Hughes Brothers’ cold, jarring movie Menace II Society, but Kelly’s manager Barry Hankerson thought that the song was too good, and he didn’t want to miss out on the money that he could make by keeping it for Kelly. Hankerson’s instincts proved smart. The Menace soundtrack was a hit, but 12 Play became much bigger. “Bump N’ Grind” topped the R&B chart for 12 weeks, making it the longest-reigning R&B #1 in history at that point. On the Hot 100, “Bump N’ Grind” interrupted the reign of Ace Of Base’s “The Sign” for four weeks, and the success of “Bump N’ Grind” eventually pushed 12 Play to sales of six million in the US alone. None of the album’s other singles made the top 10, but “Your Body’s Callin'” came close, peaking at #13.
Barry Hankerson quickly took advantage of Kelly’s growing stardom. He’d been trying to find a record deal for Aaliyah, his young niece, but he couldn’t find a label that was interested. So Hankerson started Blackground Entertainment, his own label, and he used the Kelly connection to line up a joint-venture deal with Jive. Aaliyah, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, was 12 when she met Kelly. Shortly after “Bump N’ Grind” fell from #1, the 15-year-old Aaliyah released her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, which went double platinum and launched two top-10 hits. Kelly produced the album and wrote almost every song.
Three months after Aaliyah released Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, R. Kelly secretly married her. Kelly was 27, and Aaliyah was 15. Kelly’s people had paid to make a fake ID that listed Aaliyah’s age as 18. Five months later, at the behest of Aaliyah’s family, the marriage was annulled. Kelly and Aaliyah both denied that the marriage had ever happened, even after Vibe printed the marriage certificate. This was an early warning of who R. Kelly was, but the whole Aaliyah episode did not slow down Kelly’s career in the slightest. I’m sorry to say that R. Kelly will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Juvenile’s 2006 single “Rodeo” is built around producers Cool & Dre’s sample of Kelly’s Old School Mix of “Bump N’ Grind.” Here’s the “Rodeo” video:
(“Rodeo” peaked at #41. Juvenile will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2012, the British house duo Waze & Odyssey took the vocals from “Bump N’ Grind” and put them over the music from the Nightcrawlers’ house track “Push The Feeling On.” Two years later, Waze & Odyssey officially released their bootleg remix as “Bump N’ Grind 2014.” In the UK, where the original “Bump N’ Grind” had peaked at #8, that remix climbed up to #3. Here’s the video: