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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  1. 31
    Billy Hicks on 24 Feb 2014 #

    …and for those wondering, these were the sales for #1 and #2 in the three weeks this song was at the top. They are *astonishingly* close…

    1- I BELIEVE I CAN FLY- R Kelly (51,281)
    2- RICHARD III- Supergrass (50,900)

    1- I BELIEVE I CAN FLY- R Kelly (76,000)
    2- SONG 2- Blur (75,000)

    1- I BELIEVE I CAN FLY- R Kelly (87,000)
    2- OLD BEFORE I DIE- Robbie Williams (76,000)

  2. 32
    Tom on 24 Feb 2014 #

    Wow – weird that IBICF kept increasing its sales to match whatever it was up against: an artefact of the film I guess. Where are those figures from, Billy? Is there a public resource?

    I’m not going to waste time defending this against the onslaught of hostile comments (though I think that this is the first time since Charlene that I’ve liked a song everyone else despises). I loathed it completely at the time, then found myself thinking “ah, not so bad” when I got all the #1s for Popular, and then “Trapped In The Closet” eventually gave me a way into actively liking it, as a lot of the techniques he does spectacularly well on the early episodes of that he is also using here – what Matt DC identifies as the close-talker vocal style.

  3. 33
    swanstep on 24 Feb 2014 #

    They believe it can fly. Hollywood trades papers are reporting that a Space Jam sequel or redux built around LeBron James has gone into development. Update: Maybe not, King James sources deny involvement.

  4. 34
    James BC on 24 Feb 2014 #

    When Old Before I Die came out it still wasn’t apparent that Robbie’s solo career was going to be a goer, but it get him a prescient early Brit nomination for Best Single.

  5. 35
    Query on 24 Feb 2014 #

    And with this rather sappy movie tie-in, we are officially in “my” era. I was about to turn six, and hadn’t yet begun to register the distant echoes of the pop charts (that would come at the beginning of 1998 with another sappy movie tie-in, this time a mega-hit) but I think April 1997 is an appropriate beginning, especially given the contemporaneous political happenings we’ll surely be discussing soon. Presumably the cognitive functions required to perceive the contours of a wider culture develop around the same time in children for both pop and politics. As with the pre-1997 charts, I have no memory whatsoever of John Major as a sitting Prime Minister; I do, however, have a faint recollection of the the strange apprehension I could sense in my parents and others in the weeks before the election: the polls were saying it would be a Labour victory – but then, they’d said that in 1992, too, hadn’t they?

    I didn’t see “Space Jam” in theaters, but the home video release somehow made its way into my family home – where it remains to this day, as far as I know – and I watched it incessantly. Perhaps more than any other film before or since. The film is one of those rare 90s creations that threw together a variety of cultural bric-a-brac – the Looney Tunes, Michael Jackson [edit: JORDAN], Bill Murray, aliens(?) – to make a product that actually managed to transcend the sum of its parts.

    As a result, all of the songs from the soundtrack, good or not, are engrained in my memory: the “Space Jam” theme itself, put together by Jay Ski of the Iowa producer duo Quad City, set thrillingly to a montage of Michael Jackson’s greatest basketball triumphs in the intro to the film (if that couldn’t sell basketball, what could?), the preternaturally (and appropriately) cosmic Steve Miller 1976 hit “Fly Like an Eagle,” the evil Monstars team theme featuring the absurdly eclectic MC-cast of B-Real, LL Cool J, Method Man, Busta Rhymes AND Coolio, of course no less a pop classic than Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam.” To be quite frank any of those (even Steve Miller!) would have earned a higher score from me here than this especially uncommitted R. Kelly contribution. 5.

  6. 36
    Cumbrian on 24 Feb 2014 #

    #35: I would love to see a montage of Michael Jackson’s greatest basketball triumphs. :)

  7. 37
    Query on 24 Feb 2014 #

    #36: Oops. WordPress isn’t letting me fix it, either. Well, they did play basketball together once. And let’s not forget the MJ/MJ collaboration for the music video of “Jam” (1991).

  8. 38
    iconoclast on 24 Feb 2014 #

    #37: so “Space Jam” was “Jam” IN SPACE!!, was it?

  9. 39
    23 Daves on 24 Feb 2014 #

    #31 It’s easy to forget just how big Supergrass were for a little while, and certainly I was among many people (that I personally knew, at least) who thought they were going to end up at least at Blur’s level of continued success, an act who could easily break free of the Britpop albatross – though to be fair, I suppose they managed better than most. “Richard III” seemed to be their last shot at the upper end of the top ten, though, and I must admit isn’t a track I return to often – it’s jolting, powerful and searing for the first few listens but once the surprise of it is eliminated, there’s not enough going on past its demonic melody.

    For what it’s worth, “The ITV Chart Show” did place Supergrass at number one on their chart for the first week of R Kelly’s run at the top of the official charts.

    And as for R Kelly himself, I really can’t be bothered to talk about “I Believe I Can Fly”, though suffice to say I don’t like the record at all and can’t really think of anything new to bring to this thread. I’ll just stay quiet.

  10. 40
    Andrew Farrell on 24 Feb 2014 #

    #32 – I actually think it’s alright, which surprised me as I didn’t previously rate it, but a few listens suggests it’s a song which sticks in your head a bit and does well from being absent mindedly sung to yourself (though my head appears to have the version where he claims he can fly through any open door).

    Though there’s probably an effect where people are not going to come out to bat for this, particularly if (as with me) they hadn’t sat down with that article before. Also I don’t really tend to comment on the songs – I’m a meta comment animal. Also also if I don’t really tend to comment on songs I’m definitely not going to make an exception just for this!

    #19 – Lead singer of Cypress Hill or not, you have to reckon B Real went to sleep the night after making that video with a broad smile on his face.

  11. 41
    Kat but logged out innit on 24 Feb 2014 #

    I LOVED ‘Richard III’ because it sounded like Butch Vig era Nirvana. The whole of In It For The Money was very listenable AND more importantly, easy to play on the guitar.

    Couldn’t say the same about IBICF – it’s no ‘She’s Got That Vibe’, is it?

  12. 42
    Cumbrian on 24 Feb 2014 #

    In It For The Money WAS very listenable? To my ears, it’s still pretty damn listenable. But then I was 16 when it came out, so it’s probably my formative experiences talking. Objectively, I know it’s not “the greatest album ever” but it definitely hits my sweet spot. I’d have loved it if Supergrass had got to #1 – shame they got so close and yet so far, per the stats further upthread.

  13. 43
    Kat but logged out innit on 24 Feb 2014 #

    Well I haven’t listened to it for around 10 years! But I had In It For The Money on a tape in the car with Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R on the other side, and I have very happy memories of driving all over the place with my 6th form chums, (badly) singing along to both.

  14. 44
    Cumbrian on 24 Feb 2014 #

    Rated R. There’s another monster. I suspect that we drove around to similar tapes at similar ages, to be honest.

  15. 45
    DanH on 25 Feb 2014 #

    Now this song I was well aware of, but wasn’t overly familiar with at the time. I didn’t even bother with Space Jam the movie, though I have to wonder if it was partially responsible for that regrettable but brief phase of clothing with Bugs, Daffy, and other WB characters looking all gangsta. Actually, I think I had heard Seal’s superfluous Steve Miller cover even more at the time.

    Mapman: According to the charts, the only U.S. chart action Supergrass got was “Cheapskate,” (#35 on Rock Charts) which wasn’t even a single in the U.K. Been a long time since I checked out their stuff, but my favorites were “Alright” and “Sun Hits The Sky.” Don’t remember “Richard III.”

  16. 46
    AMZ1981 on 25 Feb 2014 #

    #34 I think the Brits had a cut off point (since changed) that meant Angels wasn’t eligible to be nominated as best single which meant that they had to give Old Before I Die the nod – which in my mind is one reason I never bother with the Brits.

    As per comments above In It For The Money is actually the only Supergrass album I own (I have a greatest hits as well). I think I bought it for £2.99 in WH Smiths years after the fact – I must dust it off this week (or select it in Itunes at any rate).

  17. 47
    Billy Hicks on 25 Feb 2014 #

    Tom @ 32 – A forum thread on Popjustice that lists some of the closest near-misses to #1, compiled from various chart sources.

    Later in 1997 we’ll see the flipside of this, the biggest ever difference between a #1 and a #2 sale, but that’ll be obvious to all when it comes.

  18. 48
    tm on 25 Feb 2014 #

    Did Supergrass not manage a number one with a below-par single in a quiet week, this or next year (although that might have been ITV Chart Show rather than official)?

  19. 49
    Cumbrian on 25 Feb 2014 #

    You’re probably thinking of Richard III to be honest. Supergrass got to #2 twice, with Alright and R3 and thereafter only scraped into the Top 10 a couple of more times, so I can’t imagine that they managed to get a Chart Show #1 otherwise.

  20. 50
    Andy M on 25 Feb 2014 #

    ‘Pumping on your Stereo’ gave the impression of being a bigger hit than it was because that video was everywhere, surprised it only reached #11.

  21. 51
    Tommy Mack on 25 Feb 2014 #

    It was Going Out that I was thinking of, which would have been a real With A Girl Like You to get to number 1 after a brace of great singles and before another iirc.

    As for R Kelly, I remember She’s Got That Vibe being popular at school but this got the piss roundly taken out of it: my friend Kelly (same girl I had the ‘should you buy a record if you fancy the singer?’ argument with) was subjected to people saying ‘alright, our Kelly’ in a Manc accent for weeks. God, we were witty.

  22. 52
    mapman132 on 25 Feb 2014 #

    #45 Yep, that’s the one I remember. The video very much says “attempt at US breakthrough” right down to the band member introduction at the beginning. #35 on the rock chart shows the breakthrough never really happened although strangely enough I remember a DJ once incorrectly attributing an old Supertramp song to Supergrass.

  23. 53
    Izzy on 25 Feb 2014 #

    Supergrass scraped the top 75 right at the start of their career with a Sub Pop import of Lose It. I have a copy, it came in a lovely thick unadorned sleeve. Great tune too.

    Presumably this was a first attempt to launch them in the US off the back of The Grunge Rocket. It evidently didn’t take either.

  24. 54
    Tom on 25 Feb 2014 #

    “Going Out” is my favourite Supergrass single. I assumed they were primed for big things too, I had a Jennifers 12″ I carefully held onto on the assumption it would land me big money at some future date when the band were massive. I don’t exactly know why I thought they’d be massive.

  25. 55
    Tommy Mack on 25 Feb 2014 #

    Ha, I was (thinking mistakenly that it got to number one) all ready for you to give it a kicking for its 60s retro dadrock leanings! Always seemed a strange one to get to number one to me (but then it didn’t anyway!) – a bit of an obvious pastiche after and before other singles that mixed and blended their influences more skillfully. Though it does have some lovely noodly hammond on the chorus, recalling Ogden’s…-era Small Faces.

    I am quite a fan of Moving’s Madness-do-Jamiraquoi chorus these days…

  26. 56
    Tom on 25 Feb 2014 #

    I think its compactness mitigates against its daddery – one riff, couple of ideas, loud and tight, and out of the door in three or four minutes. I liked the thickness of it – it’s like a lazy 90s britrock track that’s been through a car compressor.

  27. 57
    23 Daves on 25 Feb 2014 #

    You can chalk me up as a fan of “Going Out” as well, and “Moving” to a greater extent – the latter song in particular has just the right mix of mournfulness and pounding, forward propulsion to describe the homesickness of anyone who has ever held down a busy job that involves travel, whether that’s as a musician or something else. In a previous career, I derived quite a bit of comfort from that track, comfort I can’t imagine getting from an Ocean Colour Scene ditty.

    Actually, Supergrass’ run of singles was pretty enviable and I’d probably defend the majority of them from the Dadrock critique. They were definitely a conservative and trad band, but their songwriting chops were a cut above most of their peers. You could clearly trace certain elements back to certain sixties groups, and it could be a coincidence, but it always seemed as if they cribbed some of the sound from the first flop Marmalade single “I See The Rain” (http://youtu.be/UCn61DuBrgo) more than a few times (It was Jimi Hendrix’s favourite single of 1967, fact fans!). At their best, though, they did manage to pull their influences together to create a clearly identifiable sound of their own. Moreover, they were actually good (and in the case of the drummer, great) musicians who were capable of creating strong pop records, rather than good musicians who got into the habit of drowning their recordings in flashy rock cliches.

  28. 58
    Mark G on 25 Feb 2014 #

    A few times they would get away with stapling two diffferent short song ideas into one. ‘Moving’ worked, whereas In My Opinion (ok?) ‘Sun hits the sky’ did not.

    also never really liked ‘in it for the money’ as much as the first, but a lot of britpop had a bad case of ‘one album is all you really need’ at the time. Same thing happened to Pulp..

  29. 59
    tm on 25 Feb 2014 #

    I’d stick up for Sun Hits The Sky’s zesty power pop. Besides, I think it was the first time they tried the cut n paste thing so it had a bit of novelty. Plus the intrigue of the line ‘I am a doctor’ AND it was, I believe, the first single to feature Gaz Coombes’ brother Rob on keys.

    I’m with 23 Daves on Super grass as the band dadrock should have been: craft and knowing your history as means to great hooks and a sense of fun rather than craft and history as ends in and of themselves. I’m feeling rather mean about Going Out now I realise it wasn’t their only number 1 though it’s still one I hear and think ‘oh yeah, they did that one too’. At the time, I hated Richard III: I didn’t really get anything that wasn’t instantly catchy back then. Partly I’d argue because when CDs are £15+ a pop, you’re loathe to takes risks on esoteric stuff but also because I was a bit of a dweeby kid who was turned off by rock racket.

    If the festival set I saw in 2007 or 8 was anything to go by, their last album was an awful, dragging bore. They were really, really boring until they through in Moving and a couple more oldies. About the most interesting thing is that by then there were two sets of brothers in the band, Danny Goffey’s brother Chris helping out on rhythm guitar. Then Iggy came on (next, not guesting with Supergrass!)

    And Pulp a one album band? No way, dude! I’d say I play Pulp’s three 90s albums way more than any other britpop stuff and Different Class the least (mainly because it was my favourite album in 1996 so I played it to death while playing Worms on the PC. I was such a cool kid.)

  30. 60
    23 Daves on 26 Feb 2014 #

    I have to completely disagree on that one as well. Pulp had several strong albums – the run through from “His ‘n’ Hers” through to “We Love Life” is fantastic. Of all those albums, “This Is Hardcore” is the patchiest (it could easily lose the likes of “TV Movie” and “Seductive Barry”) but there’s more than enough to make up for the slack. I also agree that I listen to “Different Class” less these days, but that is purely because it’s become so over-familiar. I loved it to death at the time.

    Supergrass, on the other hand, never did really release an A grade album, but most of their singles are worth anyone’s time and there are some pearls scattered throughout their album tracks as well. In fact, I’d say that only the last LP, “Diamond Hoo-Ha”, is a complete dud. The penultimate LP “Road To Rouen” gets some stick for its downbeat, moody tone, but I enjoy that side of it. I almost get the impression that the only reason they didn’t close their careers with “Rouen” was because it would have been a very subdued, despairing exit, though that’s possibly reading far too much into it.

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