Pussy. Pussy is what pervades R. Kelly’s 12th album that he, accordingly, titled Black Panties. Kelly has infamously been connected with sex, whether that be through the content of his music, people’s propensity to use his records to soundtrack their own bedroom activities, or in other, much less savory ways. The allegations of sexual misconduct that Kelly has faced over the course of his career are unequivocally damning, to the point where a whole subset of the population has chosen to boycott him entirely. Still, the detractors are never the whole story when it comes to embattled superstars. The digital feminist pantheon Jezebel praised Black Panties without breathing a word about his problematic past or some of the album’s choice missteps. Attempting to police individual reactions to R. Kelly is, of course, impossible. It’s the polarizing swing, though, between Kelly’s genius and his flagrant misogyny that makes an album like Black Panties enticing and frustrating in equal measure.
Despite the title, there’s no lacy lingerie lyrics on this record; instead, Kelly favors a naked explicitness that is appealing in its directness. Even while the iTunes tracklist stars out the word pussy like it’s a profanity (Is it? The word “dick” receives no such treatment), it is empowering to hear Kelly caress the word with each pronouncement. It’s rare for women’s sex organs to ever even be mentioned in public, while dick swinging abounds, alongside penis envy and rampant invitations to fellatio. So, yes, it feels good to listen to “Marry the Pussy”, a song that mentions the word over 50 times. But, repeated listens make Kelly’s fixation on pussy feel less liberating and more like the same old sexism cloaked in liberal language. The matrimony espoused on the track isn’t directed at a single woman, but toward the concept of sex itself. The pussy isn’t even a synecdoche for a specific woman, but instead stands in for Kelly’s sex addiction. It still works to devalue women as individuals or beings that hold worth outside of their sexuality. “Marry the Pussy” will probably become a timeless Kelly track, but it skates by on more wink-and-smile objectification.
This trend continues throughout most of the sex anthems: the women Kelly idolizes are almost always contextualized as strippers who he does the honor of paying in “Throw Money on You”, or fucking right as on “Genius”, or saving from obscurity and other Bad Men (Read: bad lovers) in “You Deserve Better”. It’s not that these songs revolve around sex that is disturbing, but that they relegate the women involved to the lowly position of sex objects, receptacles to be filled with R. Kelly’s sexual prowess, dancers there to pique his sexual interest, or minions over whom he can exercise his power by throwing cash at them. His duet with Kelly Rowland, “All the Way”, is a departure from this, but instead equates sex with cheating and addiction: “I’m right back smoking you/ You’re right back injecting me.” The sex anthems that could be embraced by both genders as end of the night theme songs are mostly absent.
Even while this rampant sexism percolates throughout nearly every track on Black Panties, it’s impossible to disparage the wordsmithery that only Kelly is capable of. The rest of the world is using cake as a sexual metaphor? Enter Kelly with “Cookies”, a song that makes Oreos and oral sex synonymous without even batting an eye. It’s certainly the only time a man has referred to himself as the “Cookie Monster” while boasting a proclivity for cunnilingus (surely Sesame Street and Nabisco have their own feelings on the subject). But, even on this track, there’s the tendency to use violent metaphors to describe sex — is there a woman for whom phrases like “gonna beat the pussy till it’s blue” or “kill the pussy, dig a grave” don’t feel slightly threatening?
Devoid of literal violence and meant to signify the immensity of physical pleasure that sex with R. Kelly undoubtedly provides, these words are, however, not empty, but packed with the physical threats that they constitute in other contexts. Not that this type of language is confined to Kelly, but it happens again and again, even on his excellent, cosmic collaboration with Future, “Tear it Up”. Perhaps the fact that our most beloved artists are referring to sex as “tearing a pussy up” is why sexual assaults are still a normal, everyday occurrence in our culture? Again, not that these issues can be scapegoated singularly onto Kelly, but he certainly represents an avenue through which these issues should be addressed and, when warranted, critiqued.
It’s when he sheds his explicit fixations though, that Kelly most often reminds why he attained mythic significance in the consciousness of those who ascribe to the cult of R&B. Because, despite the genre’s kinky bent, rhythm and blues traditionally stemmed from a place of oppression; it was music that turned those feelings into a weapon that fought back against institutionalized inequality and societal pressure. So, the inclusion of 2011′s comeback track “Shut Up”, in which Kelly turns the most petulant phrase in the English language into a gospel anthem of positive self-assertion, reveals that he’s still building on the foundations of why R&B even exists. When he praises the loyalty and steadfastness of his community on “Right Back”, or reps his own rise up from poverty on “My Story”, he’s reminding the world that his sexuality isn’t the whole story. He is R. Kelly, the R in R&B, a masterful performer and creator of epic proportions, and a purveyor of songs that implicitly focus on sex as a traditional act of rebellion against white Protestant rigidity. But, he is also R. Kelly, a flawed man who has faced enough lawsuits to cement the truth that he probably suffers from a sexual addiction and worse. And the latter is the larger presence looming here. Black Panties is a one-night stand of an album, leaving little to the imagination, but much to be desired from a man who could be giving us forever.
Essential Tracks: “Shut Up”, “Marry the Pussy”, and “Tear it Up”