The Number Ones

December 5, 1998

The Number Ones: R. Kelly & Céline Dion’s “I’m Your Angel”

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

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.

Yup. That’s right. This fucking guy again. In a lot of ways, Robert Sylvester Kelly is not a unique case. The history of the music business is full of crooks and scumbags and predators. There’s not one single person reading this column who isn’t a fan of at least a couple of absolute human-disaster shitbags. But Kelly remains the final boss of terrible people in pop music, the monster too radioactive to ever be redeemed.

The sheer documented volume and severity of R. Kelly’s crimes are vast enough to give anyone pause. In considering his case, you also have to consider the culpability of the various handlers and yes-men and industry functionaries who kept his abuse factory running for as long as it did. Kelly was able to keep doing foul shit for decades because he made money for people. It’s no coincidence that his downfall arrived shortly after his work became unprofitable.

That’s why this column unfortunately has to reckon with R. Kelly’s legacy multiple times. The last time Kelly appeared in this column as lead artist, the song in question was “Bump N’ Grind,” the one where Kelly came straight out and told us that his mind was telling him no but that his body was telling him yes, that he didn’t see nothing wrong with a little bump ‘n’ grind. (Kelly also wrote “You Are Not Alone,” Michael Jackson’s final #1 hit, which is a whole other bag of snakes.)

When Kelly landed his first chart-topper in 1994, he was still something of an unknown quantity. I’m sure plenty of people knew about the kinds of things that he was doing with underage girls, but that hadn’t become anything like public knowledge yet. By 1998, things were different. Kelly had already illegally married his protege Aaliyah when she was 15 years old, and Vibe had already printed the marriage certificate. (Aaliyah will eventually appear in this column.) That should’ve been enough to make Kelly a pariah. It wasn’t. Instead, Kelly landed his second #1 hit years later, teaming up with the world’s most popular adult-contempo balladeer to sing a fake gospel song about being your angel. Somehow, that strikes me as being even grosser than “Bump N’ Grind.”

“I’m Your Angel” was a calculated move on every level. R. Kelly’s 1993 solo debut 12 Play, the album that gave the world “Bump N’ Grind,” went sextuple platinum and turned him into a star. He followed that one with his self-titled 1995 album, which sold another five million copies and sent three more singles into the top 10. (I’m going to break column protocol here. I’m not going to rate the R. Kelly songs that didn’t reach #1. That’s pure cowardice on my part. I would rather chew broken glass than reconsider my feelings about “Ignition (Remix).”)

A year after that self-titled album, Kelly broke through in a different way. That’s when he recorded the big, orchestral gospel-style ballad “I Believe I Can Fly” for the Space Jam soundtrack. With that success, Kelly learned that the world didn’t just want to hear him singing about sex, that he could also strike gold with motivational-speaker balladry. “I Believe I Can Fly” reached #2, and Kelly intermittently chased that high again and again over the years, with singles like “I Wish,” a #14 hit in 2000, or “The World’s Greatest,” which got to #34 in 2002. “I’m Your Angel” was very much in that mold.

Kelly followed “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Gotham City,” his #9 hit from the Batman & Robin soundtrack, with the endless double album R, which he released in November of 1998. Kelly spent most of R in playboy mode, collaborating with rappers and concentrating on broadcasting his own swagger. I’m pretty sure the posse cut “We Ride” was Kelly’s first time working with Jay-Z; they’d later make two collaborative albums together. (Jay will eventually appear in this column.) “Home Alone,” the first single from R, was a straight-up party song that Kelly recorded with Keith Murray, a rapper who spent the entire ’90s on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough that never quite came. (“Home Alone” peaked at #65.)

In the context of R, “I’m Your Angel” stands as a baldfaced grab at pop-radio success. The concept of selling out doesn’t really apply to longstanding pop-chart presences like R. Kelly, but “I’m Your Angel” was still pretty clearly a sellout move, a naked bid for an audience from far outside Kelly’s base. In his reach for pop-chart impact, Kelly pulled all the most obvious moves possible. He copied the gospel-jacking sound and structure that he’d already used on “I Believe I Can Fly.” He sang about angels, which were weirdly popular right around that time. (The puffily pious CBS smash Touched By An Angel, then in its fourth season, went into syndication in 1998; it was one of the top 10 shows on TV at the time.) And Kelly also worked with Céline Dion, the obvious choice for anyone making an adult-contempo ballad in 1998.

Earlier in 1998, Céline Dion had ruled the Hot 100 with “My Heart Will Go On,” the blockbuster wailer from Titanic. That year, James Horner’s mostly instrumental Titanic soundtrack was the year’s biggest-selling album, and Céline Dion’s own Let’s Talk About Love wasn’t far behind. Let’s Talk About Love sold eight million copies in the US alone in its first year; the LP later went diamond. At the same time, Céline pretty clearly wanted to push herself stylistically. Let’s Talk About Love had collaborations with elder pop gods like Barbra Streisand and the Bee Gees, and it also had awkward-ass experiments in the realms of opera, reggae, and, yes, R&B. Kelly must’ve seen an opening.

Around the time that “I’m Your Angel” came out, Céline told Billboard, “I’m known for all of those ballads and holding a note forever. Maybe that’s my trademark. But R. Kelly created this song and sent it to us, and I thought it was sweet. The feelings were there without having to be dramatic. Hearing something different was very attractive to me; I love new moments… It’s a great song and very refreshing in that it’s not what people expect from me.”

Céline must’ve really felt artistically hemmed in if she heard “I”m Your Angel” as being somehow different from her regular ballads. Maybe the song doesn’t chase the exact same kind of orchestral bombast as “My Heart Will Go On” or “Because You Loved Me.” If anything, though, Kelly’s song is more puffed-up and sickly-sweet than any of Céline’s past chart-toppers. It’s maybe slightly more rhythmic than her other big hits, and it might require her to sing a little more delicately, at least in the beginning. But the song trudges off towards the same big key-changes and dramatic gestures, and it’s just as dependent on watery strings and drowning-in-cheese piano sounds. It also requires Céline to hold a note forever.

Kelly wrote and produced “I’m Your Angel,” and he went up to Montreal to record it with Céline. He was pretty clearly just recording a Céline Dion song for Céline Dion fans who also happened to like “I Believe I Can Fly.” Kelly and Céline flex their technical skill all over “I’m Your Angel,” and when they harmonize, it really highlights how similar their wobbly, melisma-drunk deliveries could be. “I’m Your Angel” didn’t really require these two singers to leave their respective comfort zones, and that probably had a lot to do with its success. Maybe Kelly would’ve rather been singing about fucking and/or partying, but he could knock out this kind of vaguely defined quasi-gospel in his sleep.

On paper, “I’m Your Angel” is a song about supporting someone else through hard times, sticking with them no matter what. Theoretically, that’s fertile ground for a pop ballad; it’s what Bill Withers was singing about when he made “Lean On Me.” But R. Kelly, you might’ve noticed, is not Bill Withers. On “I’m Your Angel,” Kelly and Céline pledge to support the generic “you” of the title in ways that sound oddly self-aggrandizing: “I’ll be your cloud up in the sky/ I’ll be your shoulder when you cry/ I’ll hear your voices when you call me/ I am your angel.” There’s a fine line between singing about helping someone else and just singing about how great you are. “I’m Your Angel” crosses that line. It’s impossible for me to judge “I’m Your Angel” as a pure artistic work, to detach it from what I know about R. Kelly. Where Céline once heard sweetness, I hear a creep trying to gain emotional leverage.

Even without the weight of that knowledge, “I’m Your Angel” would still be a very bad song. “I’m Your Angel” commits all the aesthetic sins of your classic Hallmark dirge. It’s an endless somnambulant trudge that’s at least two minutes too long. It hits all its expected marks without bringing any sense of life or playfulness or inventiveness to them. It’s boring. As a listener, I’ve always been allergic to this type of ballad. One of my big projects in writing this column has been to let go of those preferences and to attempt to understand what so many people love about this kind of song. I’m not always successful at getting inside these things, but I always try. I’m not willing to extend that good faith to “I’m Your Angel.” I probably wouldn’t be willing to extend it that good faith even if R. Kelly wasn’t a convicted sex criminal. The song just sucks too bad.

“I’m Your Angel” was a cross-quadrant smash, a #1 hit on the Adult Contemporary chart that also went top-10 R&B. The single sold a million copies. “I’m Your Angel” happened to be the first #1 hit of a new era in the Billboard Hot 100. The week that the song hit #1 was the first week that Billboard decided that singles that weren’t released commercially could chart on the Hot 100. The magazine also reconsidered the way it treated radio songs, using data from radio stations that didn’t fit the pre-approved top-40 formats. The week those changes went into effect, “I’m Your Angel” debuted at #1. It probably would’ve been a #1 hit even without those rule changes, but the rule changes sure didn’t hurt it. Songs like “I’m Your Angel” were created specifically to top the Hot 100, and this one did its job.

“I’m Your Angel” was the only top-10 pop hit from Kelly’s R album, and it presumably helped that album, which didn’t really have any other songs like “I’m Your Angel” unless you count “I Believe I Can Fly” being tacked onto the end of the album, go platinum eight times over. (That means the album shipped four million copies in the US; since it was a double album, those sales counted twice over toward its certification.) Céline Dion also included “I’m Your Angel” on These Are Special Times, her first English-language Christmas album, which she released two weeks before Kelly released R. These Are Special Times eventually went quintuple platinum. In 2019, after the allegations against Kelly piled up high enough, Céline removed “I’m Your Angel” from the streaming version of These Are Special Times and from the various compilations that had included it. “I’m Your Angel” is still on streaming services, though, since Kelly’s own records all remain up there.

“I’m Your Angel” turned out to be the last #1 hit for both R. Kelly and Céline Dion. (Kelly will unfortunately appear in this column again as a songwriter.) Kelly kept making hits for years afterwards. In 2001, he got to #6 with “Fiesta,” his collaboration with Jay-Z and with Boo & Gotti, the Chicago duo he’d signed to his Interscope imprint Rockland Records. In 2002, on the same day that Kelly performed at the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, a news story broke. On a video that would be widely bootlegged, Kelly had sex with an underage girl. He also pissed on her, and the pissing, not the statutory rape, became the focus of way too many R. Kelly jokes in the years that followed. (A song with an R. Kelly piss joke will eventually appear in this column.)

Kelly insisted that the man in the video wasn’t him, and his lawyers even argued that it was a CGI deep-fake, a use of the kind of technology that allowed Shawn Wayans to look like a baby in the movie Little Man. This absurd defense worked. Because of that tape, Kelly was indicted on 14 counts of child pornography, but a Chicago jury found him not guilty in 2008.

After that tape came out, a whole lot of people thought R. Kelly’s career was over. They were wrong. Kelly barely suffered any commercial setbacks. His 2003 album Chocolate Factory had two top-10 hits, the #2 hit “Ignition (Remix)” and “Step In The Name Of Love (Remix),” which peaked at #9. In the years after that, Kelly made granular, specific sex songs like “Sex In The Kitchen” and absurdist story-songs like his whole “Trapped In The Closet” series, and critics applauded his freakiness. I was one of those critics. I was wrong. I’m sorry. At the time, people made jokes about how Kelly’s music was so good that it made people forget all about the tape. A lot of that music was really good. It shouldn’t have mattered.

Kelly never made a top-10 hit as lead artist after “Step In The Name Of Love (Remix),” but he sang hooks on big hits from rappers like Cassidy and Ja Rule. His career also took some other weird turns. He briefly played minor-league pro basketball. He went off on a co-headlining tour with Jay-Z, and it ended when someone from Jay’s camp, angry at Kelly showing up late or no-showing too many dates, maced Kelly in a Madison Square Garden backstage hallway. A friend of mine, a film critic, once spent a day interviewing Kelly about his “Trapped In The Closet” videos on the Independent Film Channel. In 2013, Kelly headlined the Pitchfork Music Festival and played Bonnaroo, and he also came out at Coachella as a surprise guest of headliners Phoenix.

Then more charges came out. The tireless Chicago journalist Jim DeRogatis, who’d broken the news about the tape in 2002, wrote a 2017 Buzzfeed News story about how Kelly was basically imprisoning a whole group of young women, holding them in a kind of sex cult. Those allegations became louder and more numerous, but Kelly still had industry support. One example: In 2018, when Spotify announced that they would stop using songs from Kelly and XXXTentacion, another abusive figure who will eventually appear in this column, in promoted playlists, Kendrick Lamar threatened to remove all of his music from the service. (Kendrick will eventually appear in this column, too.) That support gradually evaporated, funnily enough, after a couple of Kelly’s albums bricked. BET aired the Surviving R. Kelly documentary in 2019, and that’s when plenty of Kelly’s past collaborators, including Céline Dion, disavowed him.

In 2019, state and federal authorities hit R. Kelly with a whole host of charges, and Kelly was finally found guilty of nine counts of racketeering and Mann Act violations last September. Right now, he’s in jail awaiting sentencing, and that sentencing is scheduled for next week.

It feels a little weird to talk about the rest of Céline Dion’s career after all that, but that’s how this column works. A year after “I’m Your Angel,” Céline released a greatest-hits album, and that collection included “That’s The Way It Is,” a single that Céline recorded with ascendant pop-chart titan Max Martin and his whole Cheiron Studios crew. “That’s They Way It Is” peaked at #6 and became Céline’s last top-10 pop hit. (It’s an 8.) After that, Céline became a mom and took a few years off recording. In 2003, she began the first of many Las Vegas residencies, and she’s become a crucial part of that city’s whole entertainment landscape, a new-century Tom Jones or Wayne Newton.

In 2016, when her twin sons were six, Céline Dion’s husband and longtime manager René Angélil died of throat cancer at the age of 73. One of Céline’s brothers died two days later. If Céline had gone into total seclusion after that devastating one-two punch, the world would’ve understood. Instead, she’s kept working. Céline hasn’t dented the Hot 100 since 2008, when “The Prayer,” her live TV-special duet with Josh Groban, peaked at #70. The album charts are a different story. Céline’s most recent LP, 2019’s Courage, debuted at #1.

These days, Céline Dion’s whole kooky presence is oddly reassuring. In something like “Ashes,” her contribution to the film Deadpool 2, she’s effectively mocked her own soundtrack-queen image. I once thought of Céline Dion as an evil pop-chart overlord, but time has revealed her to be something else. She’s a fun, weird, nice lady who made some very successful, very boring music. That’s not evil. Evil is something else.

GRADE: 1/10

BONUS BEATS: This one’s tough. “I’m Your Angel” might’ve been a massive hit, but it has never, ever been cool to cover or sample the song or to use it in a movie. For years, that was probably because of Céline Dion, not R. Kelly. Around the time people started waking up to the idea that Céline is really pretty cool, everyone also came to understand that Kelly is an absolute fucking monster. The best I can do for an “I’m Your Angel” bonus beat is a cheesed-out 1999 eight-minute Euro-house cover from someone called Rochelle. Here’s that:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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