Welcome to the second installment of Aux.Out. Book Club, where a group of us tackle a new or renowned book of the music canon and lay down some of our thoughts. For our first book, we chose Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, and now we arrive at the 2012 R. Kelly diary/autobiography/memoir/Yearbook Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me. Please read along with us in the future (our next book is at the bottom). Our clutch of readers are:
– Jeremy D. Larson, managing editor of Consequence of Sound
— Matt Melis, senior editor at Consequence of Sound
— Paula Mejia, General Manager at WRGW Radio, Staff Writer at Consequence of Sound
— Evan Minsker, Associate Staff Writer at Pitchfork, freelance writer for Aux.Out. eMusic, MTV Hive
— Rachel Bailey, Associate Editor at Georgia Music Magazine, freelance writer for Paste, Aux.Out.
Jeremy D. Larson: Hey gang. It’s good to be here at our coffee shop the … Bump and Grind? I’m really sorry. Anyway, let’s book club in the name of love.
Soulacoaster: A Diary of Me by R. Kelly. I have so many feelings about this book and I bounced between throwing my copy across the room and laughing to actually getting a little emotional — which for me pretty much mirrors my experience with Kells’ music, too. So imagine we’re just walking out of the movie theatre: What were your initial thoughts on Soulacoaster?
Paula Meija: Like you, JD, I had many a feeling when aboard the Soulacoaster. I felt poignant and unbelievable at the same time, and there were some emotional moments that would come at the end of chapters and throw me in for a completely different loop. First impression, though: The more I read, the more I couldn’t help but think of Soulacoaster as the yearbook of R Kells’ life — glossy pages, photo spreads, bolded quotes documenting each era of Kelly’s life.
Evan Minsker: I think the first thing I was forced to address is how terrible this book looks. There are tons of low-resolution photos blown up huge, there’s “fancy” cursive font that looks like cheap clipart, horrible color schemes, and so on. It’s honestly hard to look at this thing for any extended period of time and take the words seriously. He talks about his falling out with Jay-Z, and while I can empathize with this account of why Kells doesn’t speak with Jay anymore, at least Decoded is beautifully designed.
JDL: This might be a good time to tell you that I’m reading the Kindle version of this book.
EM: Seriously, find a physical copy of this and flip through it. It’s embarrassing.
Matt Melis: I owe a begrudging thanks to Joliet Junior College’s library for lending me Soulacoaster — a debt that might be best paid by, say, forgetting the book beneath my seat on a CTA bus. To the school’s credit, only two students had checked the book out prior to me. Hope springs.
I might also add that I had the pleasure of visiting Kenwood Academy, Kelly’s alma mater, on several occasions while reading this diary.
What struck me most about Soulacoaster is the incredibly terse treatment of every moment that actually makes Kelly’s story compelling: the death of a childhood friend; allegedly being the victim of childhood sexual abuse; growing up with a severe learning disability; and the nature of his gift of music—what he calls his “beautiful disease.” All of this is glossed over in favor of a book style that apes a pop song. Not everything can be a three-minute bump n’ grind, especially not a book (the works of E L James excluded). Omission was a big thing, also. Can anyone say, “Aaliyah?” R. Kelly never does.
PM: That struck me as well. The most heart-wrenching moments that he mentions of his childhood, like Lulu’s death, are simply dismissed at the end of chapters. It’s almost as though he rushes through them, like they have to be said, but rarely does he expand on their implications later on. They feel almost just dropped in.
EM: I think the blatant omissions and ultra-condensed versions of things are a solid indicator of what this book is not: An objective account of R. Kelly’s life. And I think that became especially apparent to me in his handling of his trial (which was, essentially, “a lot of bogus shit happened, but I had to stay positive and keep making sexy music”).
This thing is framed as a hero’s tale, but you know, with sexual awakenings and soul music. He overcame the odds, did the unthinkable, made it through New Jack Swing, and came out on the other end with a pile of accomplishments and legit name-dropping (Michael Jackson, Jordan, Tupac, Biggie Smalls, etc.). If I’ve learned anything from his “inspiration songs”, it’s that R. Kelly can be a total idealist when it comes to storytelling.
MM: Evan mentioned Kelly’s penchant for name-dropping. The name-drops, and their corresponding anecdotes, which could have been interesting, probably had to be the most laughable part of this read for me. Maybe it’s how Kelly writes (or dictates) dialogue, but I was pretty sure he was one toot-toot or beep-beep away from making the King of Pop his latest sexual conquest. Bumping into Tupac was an even better scene. Remember the South Park episode where Will Smith calls up Snoop Dogg, and they, for lack of a better phrase, “talk ridiculously white?” I had those voices stuck in my head throughout that entire dialogue with Pac. And you gotta love when names like Ronald Isley or Fat Joe show up looking for a hit. They leave the room for five minutes to take a crap or make a sandwich, and when they return, Kelly’s penned a chart-topper for them. Either he’s just that gifted or you people (and by you people, I mean not me) will buy anything.
EM: Oh I totally buy that he’s so prolific that he can knock out a hit in an hour. But I think I’m easily going to be the biggest Kells apologist of this conversation.
He name-dropped OJ Da Juiceman more than once, which is too many times. If he should condense anywhere, it’s there.
Rachel Bailey: I have to say about the Lulu chapter that I honestly thought it was made up at first. Kelly paints in such broad strokes that the first couple anecdotes, like Lulu and being hidden in some sort of equipment case to go see his mother sing when he was very young, sounded like clichés from inspirational ’80s movies. It took me a while to understand that he apparently experiences the world in clichés, which I guess his music would also suggest. I found this book imminently difficult to make myself read. Thank god for all the images and truncated pages, making it blessedly shorter than it originally appeared.
I just so resented being asked to look at this guy through the hero’s tale framework Evan mentioned. I mean, come ON.
JDL: Yeah, Lulu was one of those chapters where I felt manipulated quite a bit. I understand stretching the details for a memoir but, man, he just seemed to be making that up. Perhaps it’s just his lack of details or his sappy tone, but sometimes that tone lent itself to a lot of eye-rolling (I’m thinking his music teacher calling him the Second Coming of Music in front of his class).
To me it’s like — how much do we let slide in this? Half-baked theory: R. Kelly is very much a prototype for Lil B, in that it’s just more about the myth of the man and the absolute R. Kelly-ness of the story that you’re supposed to become a fan of, rather than any sort of grounded-in-reality context or inside-the-mind-of-a-genius insight.
Or the “I got bit by a Music Spider.”
A MUSIC SPIDER.
PM: I couldn’t contain my laughter with “musical spider”. Or when he talks about being abducted by the gift and “pregnant by music; and it is the father and mother of my child”.
Although he’s not as outspoken and absurd as Lil B, R Kelly is definitely letting his R Kelly persona shine through in how he approaches situations from his past, and how he remembers conversations with Ms. Lin or the people who were present and formative in his childhood, development as an artist, etc. He talks about Drea seeing him as “Robert” — which got me thinking as to who Robert might actually be. Because even in the diary of “me” so to speak, he’s not here.
EM: Am I the only person in this discussion who doesn’t think he was lying about stuff? Do I just really want to believe him? I believe that he’s omitting things, telling half-truths, and maybe over-romanticizing his own memories, but I never really thought he was out-and-out lying about things.
JDL: No I don’t think he’s outright lying, I think his truth is so self-aggrandizing that it doesn’t sync up with my self-deprecating mindset. He’s such a salesman for himself and I think I sometimes unjustly find that dubious. I feel guilty telling people about something I wrote, and he’s telling Lionel Richie to his face that his songs are worth more than $500 cash.
MM: Paula makes a really good point. Kelly makes the distinction between R. Kelly and Robert, but it’s a meaningless distinction to the reader because Robert doesn’t surface at all during this diary. Kelly is more or less saying, “There’s a Robert; take my word for it.” The shame, of course, is that Robert’s story is likely one worth reading. The R. Kelly fairy tale, on the other hand, is one in which heartbreaking, life-altering setbacks are overcome in the span of two or three pages, as if by the snapping of fingers.
Regarding his veracity, it really doesn’t matter to me whether he is outright lying, embellishing, or merely guilty of highly selective storytelling. What matters is that the result is an incredibly boring read; if you’re going to embellish, improve the damn story, man.
JDL: Speaking of reading, where did you come down on Kells’ illiteracy? How did that play out for you. That was one of the places in the book where I think the pathos really worked for me — it must be double plus hard to talk about being illiterate while, you know, writing a book.
MM: As I mentioned, quite by chance, I recently spent several days teaching at Kelly’s old Chicago high school, where he admits that he scored far more baskets than good marks. Though he doesn’t go too deeply into it, his inability to read or write does seem to be the one hardship that he really carries with him throughout this book. When he was in school–even just 30 years ago–his type of disability could easily go undiagnosed, and he shows all the signs of someone hiding or coping with illiteracy (for example, avoidance and memorization). What irked me was the fact that the adults around him really let him down. Apart from a brief passage that described his mother trying to teach him, it seemed like she and Ms. McLin (his music teacher) were far more concerned with promoting his singing than his education. (Once again, we’re looking at this through R. Kelly-tinted glasses.)
If so, then they taught him to sing but helped to deny him a type of basic human dignity. Regardless of my opinion of the guy (and we haven’t gotten there yet), it’s a sad reality that he probably can’t even read his own book.
JDL: Matt, do you hate R. Kelly?
MM: No, I don’t hate R. Kelly. I hate Soulacoaster. Given a chance to talk candidly about his childhood struggles, his “gift” as a musician, or his last decade of battling several rather disturbing allegations, he instead delivers a glossy, sanitized love ballad to himself. That’s not a book for me. Though, after finishing Soulacoaster, I did shave my head and spend about a week going around and striking triumphant poses (back arched and arms raised heavenward) against the Chicago skyline while wearing a six-pack-hugging undershirt and oversized sunglasses. So maybe something rubbed off after all.
JDL: So Matt thought it was a wasted opportunity — too much gossamer and not enough substance. Somewhat in Kells’ defense, he does say that it’s a “Diary of Me” so you know you’re in for a sometimes redundant and very egotistical look at the man. Which I think goes back to the whole veracity thing — maybe it’s better to read this book as sort of magical realism, with broad strokes of drama and humor. That’s probably what Kells would want, and it definitely fits his view as an artist.
RB: Haha, the idea of this book as magically real…
It is disappointing to buy a book labeled “diary” and find none of the candidness you’d expect from a real diary. I would have liked to see some soul-searching over Kells’ more infamous moments. Like, why did he think it was okay to sleep with a minor in the first place? What kinds of challenges does it pose to be illiterate in a business where you have to read the fine print to make sure you’re not getting screwed? Who are the people he keeps close to him, and why does he trust them? What does it feel like to be such a larger than life persona while trying to remain a real person, with real relationships, in your downtime?
I’m also left wondering who this book is really meant for. Hardcore fans, presumably. But since Kells tells his stories so broadly and briefly, I’m wondering how much this book even reveals to Kells die-hards that they didn’t already know about him. And if I’m right, then what’s the purpose of this thing?
JDL: Yeah I don’t know who the target audience is for this, and all of these questions definitely go unanswered but I didn’t really find myself asking them. I didn’t expect it. I got numb halfway through and was pretty entertained by just Kells telling stories. You know how you just stop challenging yourself when you watch Storage Wars and just tune out and never question how dumb it is because you’ve been watching it for four straight hours now? That’s how I felt about reading this. I stopped questioning it I think because, ultimately, I really love so much of his music.
How does this compare to other auto-bio’s you’ve read. If Just Kids is *up here* and Decoded is somewhere *up there too * where is Soulacoaster? I mean, I think the reason he called it a diary is because he didn’t even want it to be classified as an autobiography or a memoir, right?
EM: I love that Storage Wars analogy. Soulacoaster is absolutely comfort food on that same level, where you can just have handful after handful.
I don’t think Decoded is very good, actually– too much mystique and I sort of hated the lyrical breakdown. It’s just beautifully designed.
I’ve really like autobiographies by Patti Smith, James Brown, Neil Young, but my favorite musician autobiography is Bob Mould’s. See a Little Light is front to back great– made me listen through the guy’s complete discography and re-watch WCW matches on YouTube.
JDL: Wasn’t WCW, like, off-brand WWF? *ducks*
EM: Yes, and when you’re in middle school and your dad doesn’t want you to see Stone Cold Steve Austin guzzling beer or an audience of people screaming “suck it” every week, it’s your only option.
But whatever, I’ll rep for Mould’s era of WCW.
And they had Hollywood Hulk Hogan– the evil version of Regular Hulk Hogan.
EM: Sadly yes.
PM: Between trying to categorize Soulacoaster as a memoir, autobiography and diary…I’d say it’s neither. It reads like an extended essay occasionally spliced in with Wordart and pictures. Like Rachel mentioned about the “diary” aspect of the book’s title, what most disappointed me about Soulacoaster was the lack of authenticity despite its direct attempt at an honest account of someone’s life. It painted a broad sketch of a painting before acrylic even hits the canvas — all we have here are the pencil outlines of squares waiting to be touched with a brush.
If you want a harrowing sort of demented diary, one that feels a little like food poisoning after you’re done, check out Marilyn Manson’s autobiography. I’ve never been into Manson, but was lent the book at the urging of a friend. I was skeptical but it’s insane, personal, strange and brilliant. Simply put, what a diary should be if it’s honest to the both the author and the reader.
RB: Hey those looks like some shades Kells would wear.
Can we talk about his music for a second? I want to hear from the apologists here. I am generally pretty opposed to liking things “ironically,” but I have to say that is how I approach this fella’s music. I watched the entirety of Trapped in the Closet with Evan and some friends over Christmas and have to admit to being both delighted and baffled by it. Trying to figure out where the line is between Kells the brilliant ironist and Kells the guy who thinks he is a musical genius. Which obviously he is because he writes MEGA hits. But I never heard anything catchy in the likes of “Ignition” and I had a hard time telling the difference between humorist and delusional egomaniac (or accidental humorist) w/r/t Trapped. Since liking his music seems to be a foundation for those who also liked the book, I’d like to hear about your critical feelings on the tunes and how they affected your reception of the book.
MM: Evan brought up a good point about when musicians talk to us through a book. He read Bob Mould’s memoir and felt compelled to rummage through the guy’s catalog. I think that’s what really good works in this genre do. More than anything, they make you anxious and curious to return to the music–maybe even to look back at familiar songs or records through a newfound lens based upon what you’ve read. About the last thing this book made me want to do was listen to R. Kelly. Admittedly, I didn’t come in as a fan, but I was hoping Soulacoaster would provide incentive to try to connect to his work. Didn’t happen for me.
JDL: I am a fan of Kells’ music, but this book didn’t make me more/less of a fan. The kind of melodrama that exists in his life is very accurately reflected in his music. You listen to “Touched A Dream” and it is just him preaching about his love for a woman or “I Wish” (which he originally intended to do with Tupac?!) and it’s just a simple song about missing someone who’s died — both are pure expressions of very pure feelings. He doesn’t handle subtlety well in the book (“My life is like a mansion with a lot of rooms”, “Sometimes I feel like my music has made love to me” or the particularly cringe-worthy line where he’s talking about how he knew his own “sexy, R. Kelly brand” had been established) but that’s just not what you expect with his music.
Kelly is such a stereotypical theatre major dude: He feels the most, he loves the most, and you get the sense that he’s never, ever in his head planning things out, it just all comes out organically. That’s what I like about his music, and to a further extent, his book. There’s no pre-meditation and I trust — without a doubt — that everything he’s feeling is capital R real (REAL KELLY). My hangups lie in whether or not I would feel the same way which sometimes leads me to think he’s lying. But even if he is a bit of a fabulist, it fits in with R&B so well. You want a guy who’s larger than life up there, sexually confident, and commanding, not some mincing, self-deprecating, guarded person who doesn’t commit to “I know you’re my love-making Queen and I am your love-making King.” I wouldn’t trust a single soul to sing those words other than R. Kelly
Final thoughts, steppers?
MM: I’ve returned my copy to Joliet College. Maybe there’s another Jeremy Larson there just waiting for Soulacoaster to enter his life; it’s all his.
RB: Maybe I’ll give mine to the library, too.
EM: In the very beginning of the book, R Kelly writes: “Before you go on this Soulacoaster with me, though, there is one thing I have to say: No matter what speed it goes, how high it soars, or how low it drops–hold on.” It’s a cocky stance to make: “Hold on tight, because this Diary of Me is going to blow your mind.” I totally enjoyed hearing about his come-up in that ultra-confident tone. It’s obviously the right fit for storyteller and his subject. (Him.) Soulacoaster is a celebration worthy of the man who can convincingly and authoritatively use the word “POPULATE” as call to action mid-song.
Obviously, my copy of Soulacoaster will always have a place of honor in my home.
And y’alls crazy for not liking it.
Next month on book club: I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon by Touré