Last year, just a few days before Christmas, R. Kelly sat down for (and then walked out on) a singularly uncomfortable interview with the Huffington Post. It all started blandly enough, with reporter Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani lobbing a few softball questions about Kelly’s then-new album The Buffet. But then, she addressed the elephant that has been camping out in Kelly’s proverbial room for two decades: the “allegations” (read: amply-documented accusations by multiple impartial sources) that he has engaged in sexual activity with multiple girls below the legal age of consent. Kelly’s response was predictably defensive and testy; before leaving the interview, he interrupted Modarressy-Tehrani repeatedly, patronized her, and made a bizarre attempt to turn the tables by demanding to know whether she ever gets drunk. But the most striking and surreal thing about the interview was how blindsided he seemed by the whole thing.
Again, Kelly’s (“alleged”) sex crimes are not unfamiliar to the public. His 2002 indictment for 21 counts of child pornography and the resulting, long-postponed trial were high-profile enough to be parodied by both Chappelle’s Show and The Boondocks, to name just two of the most savage. I would not be surprised if there was a whole generation of kids out there who knew Kelly as the man who (“allegedly”) urinated on a 13-year-old girl and videotaped it before they knew him as the singer of “Bump N’ Grind.” And yet Kelly seemed genuinely shocked to hear it brought up again; he expressed real offense at being confronted with such “negativity” when he was trying to be “positive.” It’s as if everyone knows what R. Kelly did, except for R. Kelly.
Kelly’s new album, 12 Nights of Christmas, reminds me of that HuffPost interview–and not just because one of his non-sequiturs during the questioning was a plug for the record a year in advance. It’s a bizarre album because it’s such a normal album–because a nostalgic, occasionally cheeky, warm and fuzzy holiday record by an accused serial child rapist can’t be normal, no matter how hard it tries. In short, it feels like the product of the same blithe, deluded naiveté that led Kelly to blunder his way into a hostile live interview with Modarressy-Tehrani, or hold an open Twitter Q&A that inevitably devolved into a roast of his sexual proclivities. This makes it a fascinating document of pathological narcissism and denial, but not the best choice for holiday cheer.
And that’s too bad; because, in some alternate dimension where 12 Nights of Christmas is a holiday album by Raphael Saadiq or John Legend or some other R&B classicist who is not also a prolific sexual predator, it would actually be a pretty decent collection of vintage holiday soul in the Donny Hathaway mode. Kelly’s gospel-flavored singing on the spare, prayerful opener “My Wish for Christmas” is a reminder of the pure vocal talent that made him famous before he was infamous. The warm, soulful arrangements on tracks like “I’m Sending You My Love for Christmas” and “The Greatest Gift” are as inviting as a glass of mulled wine in front of a crackling fireplace. On my favorite track, “Christmas Lovin’,” Kelly even dips into a down-home Southern soul groove straight out of the Bill Withers playbook. Comprised entirely of his own songs, the album plays wisely to Kelly’s strengths, giving the man who once extemporaneously performed an original composition about sexy dolphins free reign to put his own crackpot spin on holiday music: the results encompass everything from the Michael Jackson-esque title track to the bonkers faux-opera of “Once Upon a Time.”
As you might have already guessed, however, there is a limit to the lunacy: 12 Nights is the product of the nostalgic, retro-minded R. Kelly of Happy People and Love Letter, not the leering old man in the club who gave us 2013’s Black Panties. It’s grown and sexy Christmas music with emphasis on the “grown”; even the mildly naughty slow jam “Mrs. Santa Claus”–easily the most “R. Kelly” moment on the record, with its shouted climax of “come open your gift!”–isn’t all that much more suggestive than, say, “Santa Baby.” Yes, given Kelly’s sexual history, it’s a little weird when he specifies that he’s “just a snowman lookin’ for a snow girl,” but there’s nothing truly untoward here: no duet version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” featuring Skai Jackson, no too-close-to-home allusions to packing big gifts for all the good little girls. In a weird way, though, that makes the album more uncomfortable, not less. I cringed my way through Black Panties and The Buffet with the full knowledge that its creepier lyrical touches were coming from Kelly’s authentic self; 12 Nights of Christmas, on the other hand, is a bit like spending a pleasant evening sipping hot chocolate with Robert Durst, and never once bringing up the fact that he’s probably killed three people.
Look, I’m not saying all this to change anyone’s mind about R. Kelly. I am the king of consuming problematic art by terrible people, and I firmly believe that any decision to engage with such art is purely between the individual and their conscience; my own conscience, to date, has allowed me to listen to (and, more often than not, laugh at) Kelly’s music, while maintaining a firm stance of disgust toward his personal actions. Besides, what Kelly said in that HuffPost interview was right: he still has fans, plenty of them, who will continue to buy his music and go to his concerts and apparently grope him from the front row (see above), without engaging in any soul-searching about his private life. Another thinkpiece on the Internet is not going to change that.
What I will say, though, is that 12 Nights of Christmas leaves me disquieted, more than any other R. Kelly album I’ve heard. Its wholesomeness is entirely at odds with the man behind it; and, call me crazy, but I don’t particularly want to share the holidays with someone I wouldn’t leave alone with my kids. 12 Nights is certainly worth a listen for the strong of stomach, the stony of heart, or anyone who’s ever wondered how Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift to You would have gone over if he’d recorded it after his 2009 murder trial. But I doubt it will get much rotation in even my holiday music-loving home. It turns out, after all these years, that there is a limit to my tolerance for Robert Kelly–and that might just be a Christmas miracle.
If you want to join me in hell, you can stream 12 Days of Christmas on Spotify and TIDAL below: