R. Kelly – born Robert Sylvester Kelly - has tasted the heights of superstardom, having been unofficially crowned the King of R&B and named the most successful R&B artist of the past 25 years by Billboard Magazine. His Grammy-winning hit “I Believe I Can Fly” has inspired millions with its uplifting message, as has his duet with Celine Dion, “I’m Your Angel.” He’s also sold more than 50 million albums worldwide, and can also add writing songs for the late, great Michael Jackson (“You Are Not Alone”) and Whitney Houston (“I Look to You”) to his astounding resume.
Kelly, 45, has also endured more than his share of strife, culminating with his 2002 arrest after a videotape surfaced allegedly featuring him having sex with an underage girl. Six years later, he was finally found not guilty, and charges were dropped.
Now, after his multi-part “hip-hopera” called “Trapped in the Closet,” plus two recent albums that pay homage to his soul heroes (“Love Letter” and “Write Me Back”), the singer is bringing sexy back by embarking on his Single Ladies Tour, which makes a stop Sunday night at the James L. Knight Center in Miami. He talked to the Miami Herald about what we can expect from the show, his upcoming album, his thoughts on the deaths of his friends Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, and his tell-all memoir, “Soulacoaster.”
What’s the Single Ladies Tour all about?
It’s one big musical gang-bang, trying to hook people up around here – making people fall in love with this music, man. It’s a great show, it’s exciting, and I haven’t been onstage for a whole year now, so I’m very excited to get back out there. I’ve got a lot of different stuff going on onstage this time, so hopefully the fans will love it, and I can draw some more fans.
What kind of stuff are you talking about?
Just the usual – I don’t like coming out onstage and doing a regular show, just going from song to song. Anybody that’s been to my shows would know that, so I like to trick people and surprise them with little goodies onstage to excite the crowd. I’m coming with a really nice, big opening, so I feel really good about it.
Your last two albums, “Love Letter” and “Write Me Back,” are a little different from your usual sexy R&B style. How much of each are you planning to play?
I got a nice little balance on this tour, because I mixed the old-school R. Kelly with the new-school R. Kelly, the stuff that made me, meaning “12 Play” and “Your Body’s Callin’,” all of that stuff. I’m doing a lot of those old songs, and then I’m gonna incorporate some of the “Love Letter” stuff as well. But this is really about the sexier songs.
Speaking of sexy, how’s the new album, “Black Panties,” coming along?
[Laughs] It’s coming along real good – I’m about three or four songs away from finishing it.
Will we hear any of the new stuff at the show?
Not from the “Black Panties” album, but I’m playing one new song that I’ve written for the single ladies, especially for them, and it may end up on the new album.
How about any of the “Trapped in the Closet” series?
Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, the day after Thanksgiving, “Trapped in the Closet” premieres on television – we just got through shooting it about two weeks ago. There’s about 32 more chapters, a lot of exciting cliffhangers, and also a few brand new characters.
What inspired that whole thing for you?
You know, I’m usually inspired to do songs, but I wasn’t really inspired to do “Trapped” – it just came to me and it just happened. I was in the studio one night working on a melody, and I ended up writing a song, but there was no hook, just a little story. And me being curious, I put the track up again to see what would happen, and all these stories started coming out. And then I started calling them chapters and cliffhangers and stuff, and making a whole lot of them.
You’ve written songs for both Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Would you care to share any thoughts on their passing?
Beside the fact that it was sad, just like for the rest of the world and all the fans, for me personally they’ll truly be missed because we developed a friendship outside of the studio and outside of the whole stardom world, if you will. So it’s a great loss for me, and I miss them daily and through the night. But they’re still in my heart and still inspire me to write, and I will be inspired by them to write always.
Did you see it coming at all for either of them, or was it a total surprise?
Oh, man - it was definitely a shock to me. To even say I saw it coming would make me God. And I’ve been through that with my family – I’ve had people I love who passed on and I never saw it coming.
Is there any tribute to either of them in your tour?
Yeah, in some of the shows, not all of them. But just know that the whole show is dedicated to them. Not just to Whitney and Michael, but to my mother, Tupac [Shakur], a lot of people that I knew personally who I love. I always say that once I lose somebody that I love, any time I do something on my own is going to be honoring them and the memories of them.
Way back in 1991, you won the TV talent show “Big Break.” What do you think of today’s shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice”?
I love those shows. Any show that gives a new artist a chance to show their talents and become a star and live out their dreams – I’m definitely all for that. I don’t care what you call the show, as long as it’s promoting the new Whitney Houston, or the new R. Kelly, or the new Jay-Z, or the new whoever. I think it’s a great idea.
How do you feel when you see somebody on these shows sing “I Believe I Can Fly”?
Wow! If you do it right, it really touches me. But even if they don’t do it too much justice, I feel proud of the fact that that’s the song I wrote, and somebody’s inspired enough to try to redo it in front of the world.
Who were your musical heroes?
Oh, I have a lot of heroes, man. Old-school heroes like Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday, Gladys Knight, Aretha and on up. Today I listen to so much music just to stay current and aware of what’s going on and all of the changes. I listen to a lot of Drake, Lil’ Wayne, 2-Chain, Trey Songz, Kanye, just like a lot of people. Music is like the stock market to me – I gotta see what’s up, what’s down, and that’s what I do.
What’s the title of your memoir, “Soulacoaster,” mean, and what inspired you to put your thoughts and life down on paper?
“Soulacoaster” is just the title of my life – I feel like ever since I’ve known music and become good at it and famous, that my soul has been on a roller-coaster, because I’ve had a lot of ups, a lot of downs, and twists and turns. And people think once you become famous that it’s all glorious, that you’ve made it to heaven. And I’m glad I have this beautiful disease, meaning music, but it definitely has its downfalls, you know? You have a privacy issue and you’re always facing some challenge because of your fame. So that’s why I called my book that, because I want people to know who Robert is, not just R. Kelly. I want them to know who Robert the Mama’s boy, Robert the father, Robert the son, and all of those things.
Do you address everything that’s happened to you, all the good, and especially all the bad?
Oh, absolutely. That would make it a magazine if I didn’t do that. I had to do that, because I felt like my fans deserved to know who I am, where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m trying to go.