23
Feb 14

R. KELLY – “I Believe I Can Fly”

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#764, 12th April 1997

kellybelieve Every so often on a project like this you meet records made by somebody who is widely seen as a monster. R Kelly has a lengthy history of accusations and lawsuits saying that he is a serial sexual predator, a man who uses his fame and power to exploit underage girls and escape the consequences. The details – to be approached with appropriate trigger warnings – are covered in this interview between Jim DeRogatis (a Chicago music critic who has reported on the lawsuits against Kelly for years) and Jessica Hopper. You should particularly read it if the extent of your awareness is that he’d been tried for something and acquitted.

There’s a class of writing based around the internal ethical gyrations of critics faced with allegations like this – or indeed proven crimes. Mostly, the feels of a critic dealing with good art by bad people are not interesting, particularly as they’re unlikely to be consistent (mine certainly haven’t been). At worst it makes a story about the handwringing of a music writer rather than about abuse and its enablers and victims. But critical attitudes and activity en masse can be revealing. In the case of R Kelly, there was a sudden burst of attention for – and belief in – the accusations, sparked by the interview I linked above. Two weeks before that interview, I watched a crowd of people dancing to R Kelly’s second UK number one at the Thought Bubble comics convention after-party, and it was a moment of great communal joy. How and why many critics and much of the public – me included –shrugged off the idea of R Kelly as a predator in 2003, and why many – me again included – believed it a decade later, is a story with important and uncomfortable implications, but it’s directly relevant to “Ignition (Remix)” and not to “I Believe I Can Fly”. I couldn’t write about Kelly without mentioning the allegations – because I can’t listen to him without thinking about them – but I’m going to park actual discussion of them until then.

On our first meeting with him, writing for Michael Jackson, R Kelly delivered a song perfectly tailored to its singer, a lulling ballad Jackson could fill with his tics, his sentiment and his presence. The main problem with “You Are Not Alone” is that it’s terribly static – any emotional tension is resolved by the first chorus, and Kelly has to deploy one of the most flagrant key changes we’ve ever met to get any sort of motion into the song. “I Believe I Can Fly” seems at first like it presents similar problems – like “You Are Not Alone” it hovers suspended in its forcefield of thick, stately chords, and the most memorable part of the song is a statement of apparently total self-affirmation (“I believe I can fly / I believe I can touch the sky”). Where can it actually go? The difference, though, is that “I Believe”’s positivity is constantly undermined: the song struggles against a tide of doubt, and even dread, before belief eventually wins out.

Flight isn’t just a metaphor for self-belief. It’s about escape, too – and in this song the two ideas entwine. “Spread my wings and fly away… I see me running through that open door…” – the door is open, the only thing stopping him running through it is himself, and the music moves to underline that, introducing notes of fear that turn the rising affirmation of “open do-o-or” into a cliffhanger. “I Believe I Can Fly” is a man trying to convince himself he can – a moment of awful indecision extended over five minutes. And if five minutes, why not longer? Exploring how long he can keep a song in this state of suspense is the main driver of Kelly’s “Trapped In The Closet”, which is, below its pantomime trappings, a descendent of “I Believe I Can Fly” – each (increasingly ludicrous) situation resolving into new, ever-more baroque tension.

In “I Believe” the tension can only be resolved by faith – on his own, Kelly can’t make the leap, and the crucial moment is when the gospel backing singers rise up into the song, with their staccato “I can fly! I can fly!” affirmations. This religious dimension is what separates “I Believe I Can Fly” from the wave of affirming, inspirational songs we’ve seen in the last decade, where the singer tends to address their audience directly (“You are beautiful… you’re a firework…”): people still need a nudge to believe in themselves, but now the singer plays the role of angel and self-help guru. R Kelly, though, presents himself as the supplicant – a weak man full of doubt – self-belief as a battle, and inner strength as something inseparable from higher power. This is the conceptual framework of addiction treatment – what underpins the recovery process. And from its gorgeous intro, where swelling, looming, heartsick chords find support from a lone oboe, “I Believe I Can Fly” reinforces that idea: you fly by reaching out in order to reach in.

This dramatization of a struggle is what has given “I Believe I Can Fly” a public life well beyond its origins on the Space Jam soundtrack or its place within R Kelly’s career – a staple for reality TV contestants, school choirs, marching bands and more. Pop songs are a set of tools used by many hands, as well as artistic statements made by a few, and instinctively I care more about the first. But these two sides are still connected by money, which makes “separating the art from the artist” a glib default position. So “I Believe I Can Fly”’s genuine power as a redemption song – it’s the most convincing self-help song I can think of – makes a lot of cash for a man who may well be irredeemable. And this is the tension “I Believe I Can Fly” can’t resolve and never addresses. Reaching out to a higher power is only the first step in the classical recovery process, which is designed to lead not just to personal change, but to restitution. So you can fly. Now what?

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 23 Feb 2014 #

    I would focus on the mark even less than usual here.

  2. 2
    Matt DC on 23 Feb 2014 #

    In my many idle moments I do find myself wondering about what it is that makes the basic difference between the kind of pop star that mud sticks to and the kind it just slides right off. Because R Kelly is one pop star who managed to sustain an incredibly successful career in the midst of the sort of allegations that would destroy a lot of other people. I wonder if it’s the terms of the debate, he basically invented the kind of self-consciously preposterous narcissistic dry-humping smooth loverman that would become a shorthand for every lazy dismissal of male-fronted R&B for the next two decades. So (up until Ignition Remix at least) the critical debate about R Kelly was always outright ridicule vs a kind of defensiveness that was always about the genre and rarely about the man himself, or indeed his music.

    It’s also that the sex was often so upfront and centre with his music that it seemed to obvious to event comment upon, but you need either a genuinely incredible voice or a Prince-esque twinkle in the eye to be able to pull it off and R Kelly has neither, although obviously he’s a very good singer. He would make much better records than this in the future and by the 00s you got the sense that people really wanted him to head into the Michael Jackson/Prince/Beyonce stratosphere but he was never good enough to do that, but he still had this weird teflon quality to him, until literally the last couple of months.

    I think this is a terrible record, it fails my self-imposed ‘imagine John Lennon singing it and tell me if it’s embarrasingly mawkish’ test and honestly this sets my teeth on edge almost as much as Imagine does. It’s one of those records, like You Are Not Alone, where the songwriting is so simplistic and flimsy that it just can’t support the grandiosity of the arrangement – a better performer might be able to do something with it but R Kelly is the vocal equivalent of a close talker who never breaks eye contact with you, so the end result is horrible and unnerving.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 23 Feb 2014 #

    I hate this song.
    I used to work at a school where this song was used by a senior teacher as part of a programme, along with a mixture of phrases from Neuro-Linguistic Programming and a focus on ‘multiple intelligences’ to help ‘raise achievement’ among pupils. All of these were presented uncritically to create a feverish sense that anything was possible. It appeared to work, long enough for the teacher to earn a Headship and an OBE and by the time the approach began to fail they had moved on.
    I therefore associate the song with false promises and ambition, pumped up with simulated emotion – so it seems appropriate that this was Number 1 when ‘New Labour’ won the 1997 General Election by a landslide with a soundtrack of ‘Things can only get better’

  4. 4
    Tom on 23 Feb 2014 #

    (The dates are slightly deceptive – everyhit uses week endings not the date it actually got to #1 – so it’s actually the next song that’s at the top when New Labour get in.)

  5. 5
    Steve Mannion on 23 Feb 2014 #

    Love how threatening they’ve had to make Bugs Bunny look on that cover. I RT’d a link to the original Space Jam website only yesterday because brilliantly it still exists: http://t.co/QsBODYdqwA

    Nothing useful to say about the song or the man just now really – have almost always been repelled by the latter (just on record alone – not the kind of overt male voice I like – so inevitably I’d sooner listen to him for the comedy aspects he gamely seized on) and really hated this song for a long time (ironically a bit less so now – 4 for me as I like the dramatism of the “I-CAN-FLY!” gospellers towards the end as Tom described above). I preferred this sort of thing to come from groups in RnB (whether all male or all female…sadly you never got a mix) for some reason – maybe harmonies was a factor…I probably still do. Insert team sports > solo sports analogy here :)

  6. 6
    Weej on 23 Feb 2014 #

    In about 1998 I was visiting my grandmother in Speke, and (it being Sunday) found myself being taken to mass (I don’t think she missed one in her 92 years) When we arrived I found that the huge echoing brick & concrete rectangular church (a spire had been planned but it was next to the airport, so a featureless block it remained) from my childhood and that of my mother had been demolished and a polite little hut had been built in its place. Inside, the congregation remained, now able to fill up the little circle of chairs. The young people in the area didn’t go to church, and everyone over the age of 21 seemed to have moved away, but the funky new priest with big ideas didn’t seem to care that his flock had an average age of 80+ and insisted on trying out an experimental new sermon which all built to his playing a CD of R Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly while we all sat in silence, then explaining at length the song’s relevance to our lives.
    My grandmother was not generally one to criticise priests, but this was all a bit too much for her. For me, this is how I will remember the song always. It’s ridiculous and I can’t be bothered to even try suspending my disbelief. 2.

  7. 7
    Chelovek na lune on 23 Feb 2014 #

    I find this cringeworthy, both musically and lyrically: Whitney’s ‘One Moment In Time’, while far from her best, is a far better ‘self help’ song of this type that correctly suggested that, apart from belief; effort, trial and error were required for a realistic chance of attaining one’s goals. Thus, Whitney got the Olympics gig, R. Kelly (never at his best on these slower numbers, even when, as here, he is not obscenely lascivious) got an Ali G parody – which shows up the shallowness of the song perfectly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COP3PQJJ66k

    For a 90s track that conveyed a similar message to this song, albeit with greater depth and consideration (and with a far superior presentation – although to be fair, with 30-odd singers, there is more scope), “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness, never quite the big hit it should have been, stands out.

    As it is, I find this almost unlistenable – and that has nothing to do with the character of R. Kelly.

  8. 8
    iconcoclast on 23 Feb 2014 #

    Deity, five and a half minutes of this? Mawkish, oversung, and underwritten, even without the key change for the last chorus or the Curse of the Drum Machine*, it’s a textbook instance of one of the least appealing types of ballad. Ultimately it’s not very interesting and somewhat of a chore to get through. FOUR.

    * Note that the drum pattern hardly changes for the entire length of the song; this isn’t likely to make a boring song interesting. (Personal gripe)

  9. 9
    AMZ1981 on 23 Feb 2014 #

    This record had a slightly unusual chart pattern – it entered at number two, vanished down to number five before climbing to the top (on the back of the film’s release). It was the first climber to hit the top since Professional Widow and the first climber to hold down the position since Ready Or Not.

    During its three week run I Believe I Can Fly held off three fanbase number ones. There was some surprise when IBICF edged out Supergrass’ Richard III and saw off Blur’s Song 2 the following week.

    Week three saw Robbie Williams hit the runner up slot with Old Before I Die, his first `proper` solo release (Freedom being a car crash of a cover in lieiu of any actual product) and set the Guy Chambers produced blueprint that would make him the nation’s biggest pop star when the Spice tide receded – this was far from obvious at the time.

  10. 10
    Cumbrian on 23 Feb 2014 #

    An anthem steeped in self doubt, willing yourself to be able to fly, really doesn’t sit well in another context too, i.e. that of Space Jam.

    Space Jam, for those who have not seen it, rests on the following story. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player on the planet, quits the game in an attempt to make it as a baseball player (NB: for those not aware of Jordan, this actually happened in real life). Whilst away from the game, alien cartoons decide that (to make their theme park a success) they will kidnap the Looney Tunes. These aliens are small and not physically impressive. The Tunes, bargaining for their freedom, ask to play a basketball match against the aliens – if the Tunes win, they win their freedom. If they lose, they leave with the aliens. These aliens then capture five NBA stars, suck out all their talent and transform themselves into the greatest team possible. The Tunes, realising what is going on, persuade Jordan to return to the game to help them win the game (the aliens not being au fait with basketball prior to the challenge are unaware that the greatest player of the game is moonlighting in minor league baseball). The obvious then occurs – with a brief detour that allows Bill Murray – appearing as himself – to somehow get involved on the court.

    It’s a cartoon and is inherently absurd. Nevertheless, it rests on one thing that basically was the case in the NBA in the early to mid 90s. Jordan, singlehandedly, was capable of beating NBA teams by himself. He did have some good players as a supporting cast but he won 3 NBA titles, left the game, during which time his team failed to win the titles, returned to the game and immediately won 3 more times. Basically, the idea that Jordan could beat the best of the NBA by himself with only Bill Murray, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd for team mates was not that far fetched. He really was that good – and was reputed to be an utter arsehole and massively self possessed. Air Jordans came about because of his seeming ability to fly when dunking but his outstanding characteristic is probably the lack of even a scintilla of doubt in his own ability on a basketball court.

    I Believe I Can Fly then seems to fit as a title for a movie with Jordan as a star but because of the doubt that R Kelly brings into the song, the need to will himself forward being as powerful as anything else in it, it does not fit with Jordan at all. Jordan would scoff at this type of attitude. He’s just going to go out there and own it. End of story. Add in the fact that a song of this type might get kids singing along (witness the videos of children singing Let It Go from Frozen doing the rounds on Youtube) but is more likely to be too slow to hold their attention; it just seems really weird that this song got attached to this movie.

    As far as it goes, unmoored from Space Jam, I don’t think this is that bad – it’s getting a real kicking thus far – it’s miles better than You’re Not Alone for a start but I’m not convinced by R Kelly singing it. He goes to sell the sentiment of the song but there’s the odd thing that seems to undercut it – there’s this odd little whoop from him, very quietly done, somewhere early in the song, for instance; it seems to me that whoop says, “look at me, aren’t I killing this?”

    I would agree that discussion of R Kelly, his activities and the tension between that and appreciation of his work is probably better served for later. This is, as I said, not that bad, but it doesn’t quite work for me. Probably a 5, I think.

  11. 11
    Cumbrian on 23 Feb 2014 #

    9: Damn, this kept Richard III off number 1? I love that track – exactly the right length for a Stooges-esque gonzoid thrash. I am in the tank for Supergrass anyway though and love In It For The Money as an album in any case, so take my opinion for what it’s worth (i.e. not very much).

  12. 12
    taDOW on 23 Feb 2014 #

    thought maybe there was a gap between this song’s peak in the us and in the uk but apparently not. crazy he’d do ‘gotham city’ so soon after but not surprising, when he finds something that works he’ll mine it relentlessly for better or worse. when r kelly first emerged he had a ‘aaron hall clone’ tag applied to him (aaron hall had had a similar ‘charlie wilson clone’ tag applied to him) but he shed it pretty quickly and became the dominant force in r&b for the 90s and much of the 00s. shamelessness has been his vice and his virtue and it’s really the only aspect of his secular crossover hymn phase that i can admire, just the blatant positioning inherent in doing a song called ‘i’m yr angel’ w/ celine dion. w/ this and woody allen there’s been alot of discussion over whether one can or should separate art from the artist and nearly any answer seems fair to me (i generally do w/o a second thought but i can hardly blame someone for cutting someone’s work out of their life for some monstrous act), short of ‘but he made _______, there’s no way he could have _______’. what i’m curious about is whether ppl are more uncomfortable listening to a song where an r kelly plays the saint like this or one where he embraces the sinner? anyhow, 5 for me. in related news they might make a space jam sequel w/ lebron.

  13. 13
    thefatgit on 23 Feb 2014 #

    Oh, dear. Space Jam was a film that could only exist because of the marketing potential of Michael Jordan. As high-concept as it gets. I’ll not dwell on the plot, because it’s preposterous in the extreme. If Space Jam was made to sell basketball to the world, it failed. If the film was made to sell Looney Tunes to the world, it was unnecessary. If it was made to sell Michael Jordan to the world, Nike got there first. Despite everything, not least it being a terrible mess of a film, it was a box office success. Go figure.

    IBICF is as preposterous as the film, a champion-sized onion of a song, made of many layers of the kind of emotions associated with self-worth, self-determination and untrammelled hubris. Sporting people have to rely on inner-belief to make it through the challenges their chosen sport demands of them. Such emotions and physical exertions have nothing to do with believing in physical impossibilities, or our sporting “gods” fall like Icarus. Sportsmen and sportswomen dutifully set themselves goals and strive to achieve them. There is over-reach and there is failure, but there is still the will to succeed. This was the belief that underpinned “One Moment In Time”, albeit visualised through the lens of someone who could have soundtracked a re-imagined “Triumph Of The Will”. IBICF is all about Icarus and over-reach. And everything in this song is placed there deliberately as if to trick us, that gods walk among us and their power is ours to attain if only we could just believe. R. Kelly fails to sell that premise, with every imagined reach to the sky to grab that imagined power and clutch it emptily to his chest as if to become one with it. No matter how many times he visualised that in his mind’s eye, it remained unattainable. Yes, there are songs that show us the impossible is possible. “The Impossible Dream” is one of my favourite songs, but that’s a Quixotic, insane marvel of a song. R. Kelly couldn’t even hope to approach a song like that convincingly, because he can’t convince us here, try as he might. He is only human after all. Not a particularly admirable human, but I don’t even want to go there. It just makes me shudder in disgust. Bad film. Bad song. Bad man.

  14. 14
    James BC on 23 Feb 2014 #

    R really hit on a formula with this and You Are Not Alone. It can’t have taken him more than ten minutes to crank out another hit following this pattern – as he says in the song, “there’s nothing to it.” And he proved it by shamelessly cranking out about ten more along the same lines over the next few years, all of which had baffling levels of chart success. In the absence of a film tie-in, who was the target audience?

  15. 15
    taDOW on 23 Feb 2014 #

    obligatory the original space jam site from 1996 is still online post – http://www2.warnerbros.com/spacejam/movie/jam.htm

  16. 16
    flahr on 23 Feb 2014 #

    I can confirm this was 1x genuine playground hit, although with altered parody lyrics. (And come to think of it I would have been four at the time this came out, so it may have been a playground hit several years later if I’m able to remember it).

  17. 17
    Izzy on 23 Feb 2014 #

    I think Kells is amazing, he is so prolific and talented, and his output is high quality across a hell of a range – so it really pains me that his biggest hit, and to some extent signature number, is one I just can’t love. I find it too simple, too childish, but even so I can appreciate the craft.

    A (5) then, the pronunciation of ‘do-woah-woah-oar’ edging but just missing a (6).

  18. 18
    ciaran on 23 Feb 2014 #

    The Ali G parody was the first thing that came to mind. He also did a skit with Gail Porter singing ‘Every Breath You Take. Maybe too early to mention that yet!

    IBICF is just dross of the highest order. Made worse by being played almost every 10 minutes on the radio back then. It felt like I heard it about 1997 times that year! It was fairly warm that April so it’s sadly a perfect record that greeted the heat and longer days ahead. 2.

    No surprise that R Kelly threw his name to this and then did likewise with Gotham City a few months later. Very uneasy to hear him sing ‘City of Justice’ in that one given the stories that now follow him.

    Luckily ‘If I Could Turn Back The Hands Of Time’ just missed out in 1999.

    Never paid much attention to the allegations surrounding R Kelly but he always came across as an oddball. Basketball had Dennis Rodman – R&B had R Kelly. Wonder what will happen by the time we get to his next number one?

    The other song Fly Like An Eagle by Seal from Spacejam was pretty dull too.

    The 90s was something of a golden era for Basketball so it was no surprise this brought about a film absurd and all as it was. My 3 year old nephew was fixated with Spacejam around this time so I watched it quite a lot. This nephew also subjected me to a horrible Number 1 later in the year aswell.

  19. 19
    Doctor Casino on 23 Feb 2014 #

    I have nothing to say about Kelly or about “I Believe I Can Fly” (I can remember the chorus but the rest is just a lot of ‘inspirational’ mush in my brain, amazing since I must have heard it a hundred times), but the other thing about “Space Jam” is that the fusion of Looney Tunes and popular black stars would have made perfect sense: there had been a huge Looney Tunes “thing” through mid-decade in American youth culture. Big baggy shirts with Bugs and company striking “gangster” poses, themselves in big baggy shirts, backwards caps, one-strap overalls, etc. I have no idea why this became a ‘thing,’ but near as I can tell it was probably some executive’s dubious idea of making the cartoons ‘hip’ again – which, improbably, worked: I saw a ton of this stuff on my schoolmates (white and black) though I cannot confirm or deny with certainty my own participation. Between this and Tiny Toon Adventures, the Warner Brothers cartoons were probably more well-watched and well-liked among kids as they’d been in ages. So while Space Jam’s premise remains preposterous, and I agree with Cumbrian that Kelly’s song ill fits the concept, you can see why it made sense at that moment… and probably at no other. The hugeness of Air Jordans also being part of this mix, I’m reminded of the character in Max Barry’s Syrup who pitches to Hollywood a movie “starring Coca-Cola.”

    The soundtrack’s much better single was a posse rap cut called “Hit ‘Em High (The Mon-Star Anthem),” with Method Man, LL Cool J, B Real, Coolio and Busta Rhymes all good-naturedly taking on the boastful role of the movie’s bad guys, with lots of good-clean-fun basketball themed rhymes (and one forced Bob Dole joke). That would be a fun, if pointless #1 for us…

  20. 20
    Kinitawowi on 23 Feb 2014 #

    It beat Song 2 to the top spot, and wasn’t even the best song on the Space Jam OST (that’d be Seal’s cover of Fly Like An Eagle; All-4-One’s contribution would be covered later to greater effect). Derivative, overlong, lousy. 3.

    Obviously the time for discussion will come later, but my awareness was the one mentioned in the article – the existence of the peeing on somebody video. The somebody and the implications of that were completely lost on me at the time.

  21. 21
    Rory on 23 Feb 2014 #

    Before the end of last year my awareness of R Kelly was limited to Adam and Joe’s discussion of the “Trapped in the Closet” series on their old XFM show, which made it hard to take him at all seriously. Then I came across Swede Mason’s remix of one of his TV performances, and couldn’t stop laughing.

    Then I read the Jim DeRogatis interview. And stopped laughing.

    Swede Mason, though: there’s someone worth your time.

  22. 22
    Rory on 23 Feb 2014 #

    Uh-oh: my comment is trapped in the closet (/moderation queue)…

  23. 23
    mapman132 on 23 Feb 2014 #

    I can’t be objective on this one so I’m not even going to try. Here’s my brief comments on the three #2’s instead:

    “Richard III”: I swear Supergrass had a minor US hit at some point, but I can’t figure out what and this wasn’t it. Listening to it, it isn’t bad, but I can’t really get into it. 5/10.

    “Song 2”: Like I’ve said previously, Blur’s most famous song in America. Not released as a single though (of course!). 7/10.

    “Old Before I Die”: So this would’ve been Robbie’s first solo #1, which is interesting because I’ve never heard of it before. Not great, not bad. We’ll have opportunity to talk about him again (and again and again and again). 5/10.

  24. 24
    Izzy on 23 Feb 2014 #

    At the time I couldn’t believe Richard III had nearly made no.1* – it seemed as extreme a record as could hope to get there, with the sound of the thing, the devil’s chord change, and all that. But Block Rockin’ Beats sounds a lot harder to me now, stripping out the most human touches like a vocal and a melody. Also a lot worse in fairness.

    * I read once, but now can’t remember, how close it came – iirc it wasn’t quite a handful, but it wasn’t particularly much. They might even have eschewed a promotional TOTP slot the week before which could’ve put them over the edge.

  25. 25
    punctum on 23 Feb 2014 #

    One of the most drainingly moving vocal performances of recent years is the one which Kevin Rowland gives to his reading of “The Greatest Love Of All” at the beginning of his 1999 covers album-cum-post-traumatic curative My Beauty. It is performed by two Kevins; one, the subject, singing, the other, his conscience – or his psychotherapist? – urging him on, gently nudging him along the road to redemption. Or not so gently in the viciously cutting whirlpool of the opening “It’s over it’s over it’s OVER!” as Rowland awakens from his nightmare of cocaine addiction, bankruptcy, prison and homelessness, still shaking, still mightily fearful, calling for his mum – but the other Kevin assures him that he’s OK, he’s made it through the tunnel and come out at the bright end. Then piano and strings usher in the cheesiest, most self-aggrandising song in all of pop, a song which even George Benson couldn’t make dignified, a song over which Whitney ejaculated predictable juices of overstatement – a song only Patrick Bateman could love – and Kevin makes the song matter for the first and perhaps only time in its miserably rich existence; he speaks the first verse, casting himself as one of the “children.” It’s impossible to listen to his plea to “give him a second chance” and not be moved, especially if you’ve been through parallel circumstances of horror yourself. “Give him a second chance…make it easier…” Anyone who knows the trouble Kevin’s seen, or a trouble comparable to it, or worse, would recognise instinctively and immediately what he meant. And he proceeds to sing the rest of the song with unapologetically blazing passion, not needing to scream his soul but determined to stand strong for fear that he might collapse again, with only one central change to the lyric: “No matter what they say about me/They can’t take my personal dignity” – lines which could only have been his (as indeed is the absolutely crucial lyric change from “I learned to depend on me” to “I tried to depend on me”).

    This demonstrates the magic of the great interpretations and interpreters of song; to coax out, flesh out and improve unpromising raw material – to make the listener believe, even participate. But I doubt that even Kevin could do much with “I Believe I Can Fly,” the “Greatest Love Of All” of its age. Never having been a fan of R. Kelly – his cold onion of a strangulated voice is enough to deter me without having to know about his sexual peccadilloes – it is easy to detest this nauseously narcissistic self-ode, derived from a film entitled Space Jam which apparently involved Bugs Bunny, Michael Jordan and overweening self-belief; the kind which ends up justifying Guantanamo Bay.

    “’Cos I believe in me,” burps Kelly two-thirds of the way through the song and he’s not about to let you forget it; musically he goes for the flat synth plus drum machine minimalism of “Lady In Red” – it actually sounds like a demo – before spreading his wings and, you guessed it, flying away, not to mention “leaning on the everlasting arms” (if only Mercury Rev’s “Everlasting Arm” had gone to number one instead!) and “miracles in life” which start “inside of me.” His pronunciation of the word “door” in the chorus is the pop equivalent of fingernails avec blackboard. His intermittent whoops don’t even seem to convince himself. There is a horrendously amateurish edit at the 3:02 key change which sounds as though pieced together with a rusty pair of secateurs, following which the inevitable choir, so not to speak, fly into the uninviting picture. While still unsure about his powers of flight, I can confirm that Kelly’s final ululatory melismatics are extremely reminiscent of an especially irritating wasp; but given that this ghastly anti-record managed to keep Blur’s “Song 2,” Supergrass’ “Richard III” and even bless-him-Robbie’s Oasis tribute (part 1) “Old Before I Die” off number one then it defies salvation. “Life was nothing but an awful song” bleats Kelly near the beginning, and by God does he set out to prove his case. Thankfully the Kevin Rowlands of this world remind us that there’s much, much more to life.

  26. 26
    Doctor Casino on 23 Feb 2014 #

    Let me add: Tom, thanks for linking the Hopper/DeRogatis interview. It’s given me quite a bit of pause, and a lot to think about.

  27. 27
    swanstep on 24 Feb 2014 #

    This track was *so* not my sort of thing and such an immediate channel-changer that I never heard more than a few bars of it at the time. Listening properly now, did I miss anything? Not really; the synth orchestral stuff is demo-quality, Kelly’s diction is the pits, and the lyrics strictly boilerplate. But vaguely religious self-affirmations just aren’t for me so what do I know… Living in Chicago at this time, I do remember hearing other musicians winkingly joke about how Kelly ‘liked ’em young’. Ugh.

  28. 28
    anto on 24 Feb 2014 #

    Sappy drivel.

    Wasn’t this the last chart topper under tory rule?

  29. 29
    JLucas on 24 Feb 2014 #

    Putting aside all the controversies, my main issue with R.Kelly’s music is how disingenuous he sounds. On sex songs like Bump ‘n’ Grind and even party songs like Ignition, he sounds agreeably sleazy. But his penchant for sap like this really turns me off. This was horrible, and the seemingly endless Unchained Melody rip-off If I Could Turn Back The Hands of Time was even worse.

    The problem is definitely with him as a vocalist, as I think he’s actually a great songwriter. I Look To You is by far the best song from Whitney Houston’s last studio album (of the same name). It’s completely perfect for her dramatically reduced vocal range, simultaneously humble and fragile. Other songwriters on that album tried to recapture her glory days, while he seemed to completely understand where she was at that time. A whole album in that vein would have been wonderful. Even at her worst she was ten times the song stylist he could ever hope to be.

  30. 30
    Billy Hicks on 24 Feb 2014 #

    When I started stage school in 2000, this, ‘Killing Me Softly’, ‘Everybody Hurts’ and the old standard ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ were all part of our singing lessons, having to learn every note perfectly to the point where I hated them all after the first term. That hate hasn’t really gone away for any of them except the Wizard of Oz song, but even without the memories of having to sing this bloody song every week I’d still give it a low mark for most of the reasons said above. His next bunny is much better but more on that in six years.

    Perhaps the greatest thing R Kelly’s done is Trapped in the Closet Chapter 9, still a source of much mirth and quotes among my social circles many years on to the point where if I sing any line of it I’ll almost inevitably get the next one back, along with the final revelation of who the man in the cabinet is. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-L-Cp3qZfQ

    And is it slightly shameful that I don’t think I’d heard ‘Richard III’ before? Listening to it I’m slightly blown away by it, a noughties rock track at least five years before said sound was fashionable and brings to mind some of the more upbeat Muse numbers of the Origin of Symmetry/Absolution era. That and Song 2 would have been two remarkable #1s. Not as keen on Old Before I Die though, there’s only…ooh, maybe three Robbie tracks I genuinely really like, one 2000 bunny and two #4s. Again, though, that can wait.

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