BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
In his black and gold ensemble – including a matching ballcap trumpeting his beloved Chicago Bulls – R. Kelly walked quickly and quietly to a back alcove at the W Atlanta Midtown Thursday afternoon.
Kelly is in town because he is headlining Friday night’s sold-out Funk Fest at Wolf Creek Amphitheatre. But he’s also in town because he’s now a sometime-Atlanta resident.
The man widely recognized as the most successful R&B artist in recent history (Billboard crowned him as such in 2011) with memorable hits such as “I Believe I Can Fly,” “Bump N’ Grind,” “Ignition” and “Trapped in the Closet” chatted amiably about his upcoming album, “Buffet,” the future of R&B and how he stays classy.
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Q: So you’re performing this weekend. What can fans expect from you at Funk Fest?
A: Now that it’s a sold-out show and fans are really eager, makes me even more so. What you should expect is the unexpected, that’s the way I design my shows - to be really spontaneous.
Q: I saw you a few months ago when you popped out on stage with Chris Brown. It looks like you really still love to be out there.
A: Music is in my DNA now; there’s nothing I can do about it. I love it and it loves me. The interesting thing is that now, my music comes with memories. A lot of fans when they hear the music, they latch on to their memories.
Q: You have a lot of hits to fit into a set…
A: That’s the hardest thing in the world to do, to put an R. Kelly tour together, because of the catalog. Which is a blessing to be in the business 27 years and have a lot of hits and songs under my belt. The show becomes this great 2-hour medley.
Q: You’re working on your 14th studio album. What can you tell us about it?
A: I feel great about it. It’s called “Buffet.” I’m done with my songs so now I’m mixing and tweaking a few things.
Q: It seems as if you had half of Atlanta on “Black Panties” with Ludacris and 2 Chainz and Young Jeezy…any guests on this one that you can talk about?
A: Not as of yet. We’re two months out from being done. We’ll probably have some guests, but not at many as the last album.
Q: Who do you want to work with at this this point in your career?
A: I’ve always said I’m at my best when I’m wanted, so whoever is interested in working with R. Kelly, that’s what drives me to work with them. I’m available, I’m ready!
Q: What do you see as the future of R&B?
A: First of all, you’ve got to realize R&B isn’t something that isn’t here today and gone tomorrow. It’s a badge. You gotta wear it, you gotta honor it, you gotta retire it. I take R&B very seriously. And being in this business 27 years, that’s the path you want to follow and in order to do that you have to keep up the edge, you have to work hard, stay in the studio, you can’t relax …and so that’s what I’ve done and that’s what I continue to do, is be consistent at being consistent.
Q: Who do you look to for inspiration? Do you listen to a lot of new stuff?
A: A little bit. I don’t have a chance to because I’m always in the studio writing. I listen to a lot of R. Kelly because I still have a path behind me and I still want the guys to follow that path and get to the longevity status.
Q: Who do you think has the potential to have the type of career you’ve had?
A: Chris Brown has definitely created his own path from being inspired by my path, just as I was by Stevie Wonder and all of the greats before me. You have to create that path and then comes the longevity role…Jeremiah, I love his music and I think he has the potential to do that as well.
Q: So many people over the years have formed their own idea of you are and what you’re about. What is the most misunderstood thing about R. Kelly?
A: There’s no one thing. Once you reach stardom to such a peak that you’re seeing these mountains and they’re down there now, people want to figure you out. You hear all kind of things about yourself. I’ve been in this 27 years, I’ve heard everything from drug dealer to everything. But what I’ve learned to do is tune everything out except for the music. That has kept me grounded. If you’re gonna do it, that’s how you gotta do it.
Q: That’s got to be challenging sometimes.
A: In a good way. I channel it into the music. I take all of the negativity – and you need some negativity to even inspire you to want to prove that you can be a better person and you can rise above – and that’s what the turbulence is all about. That’s what I try to do and apply it to everything I do.
Q: You said you’ve lived part-time in Atlanta about six months. What made you want to establish residence here?
A: I’ve always loved Atlanta, I’ve always called it Chicago’s cousin. When I come to Atlanta it reminds me of my hometown. I’ve got a lot of friends here, so it always felt like home. I used to say all the time when I get a chance I’m gonna get a three-flat and come to Atlanta and I finally got my chance and I’m here and I’m just trying to plant a few seeds here musically.
Q: Are you doing some of the recording (of the new album) here?
A: I’ve done a lot of recording here. I’m looking into building a studio here. Gotta do it…Atlanta is very musical. I love the music that comes out of Atlanta. Coming here and collaborating and vibing out is a great thing. I come here for two weeks and go home for two weeks.
Q: Anything in particular you like to do or places you like to hang out in when you’re here?
A: I like to go to a cigar bar, smoke a couple stogies, chill out. That’s my quiet before my storm of going to the studio.
Q: You always have this classy way about everything you do – you’re smoking cigars, wearing suits onstage. Is that a deliberate image or who you really are?
A: I just believe in class. You can be a beast but you can have class, too. You can be sexy but you can be classy at the same time. I feel that everything I do, you should add class to it because class is part of longevity.
Q: Speaking of sexy, sex is one of your favorite songs topics. Is that the direction for news stuff?
A: The album is called “Buffet,” and the reason is because I’m at a point in my career where I’ve got a lot of different age groups of fans and I need to be able to satisfy all of those genres. “Step in the Name of Love” is one genre, hip-hop is another; my vintage R&B R. Kelly, you have to give them that as well. It’s like going to a buffet and getting a little bit of everything.
Q: Do you worry about maintaining relevancy on radio?
A: To be totally honest, I and I really do appreciate every radio station around the world who has played R Kelly’s music, but I was never in this for radio. I did this because I was a street performer and I loved music and someone found out about me and they started playing me, I never chased anything. I never thought about it. I don’t think I was born to even win nothing; I think I was born to touch everything.