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R. Kelly's Tunes Don't Sound So Good Anymore

At first, it's nothing unusual on this breezy, early spring night in a popular sports bar for Oakland's young and fly. Rockawear Jean fits and Karl Kani velour sweatsuits mingle with low-cut jeans and miniskirts. Enticing barbecue smells mix with the odor of Newport smoke and beer. The latest hip-hop and R&B joints blast on the jukebox, competing with NBC commentary from Bill Walton talkin' 'bout Shaq and the Lakers whuppin' on another hapless first-round opponent.

Then the R. Kelly videotape man walks in.

Gold-grill smile shining in the bar light, gold chains hanging from his neck. Long cornrows jutting out from underneath a black Giants cap.

"Got that R. Kelly video, playa... Oh, what's goin' on playboy, I ain't seen you in a minute. Got that R. Kelly on VHS and DVD. Put dub ($20) on it and it's official."

The box of the bootleg looks straight out of the store. R. Kelly, the soulful Chicago native who has held the hip-hop/R&B/soul charts on lockdown for the past 10 years -- and was recently indicted on 21 counts of child pornography -- is on the full-color cover, with the words "DECIDE FOR YOURSELF" underneath "R. KELLY SEX VIDEO."

How did the videotape man get the footage?

"From the Internet, mayn. You know -- technology?

How are they selling?

"Like 20 sacks, homie. We can't keep enough of 'em."

---------------------------

"Dude, it's him."

"Are you sure, George? I mean, really, are you sure?"

"Yeah blood, on mama, it's him."

For months Kelly denied that the person in the footage was him. George is one of my friends who's peeped the tape.

"Unless R. Kelly has a twin walkin' around here somewhere, it's him," George tells me with a half-serious, half-amused look.

"I really don't know what to think. The tape is freaky, homeboy, beyond regular sex, feel me? I know all his music sounds different to me now."

Different how?

"Like a dirty old man singing to a young teenager."

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Listening to R. Kelly's music now is an exercise in how to deal with a moral dilemma. Do you leave the club or continue to dance because the beat is still funky? Plus, he sounds so good with Notorious B.I.G. on "F--- You Tonight."

"You must be used to me spendin' / And all that sweet winin' and dinin' / Well I'm F---in' you tonight."

Every time this song comes on, I'm singing the words automatically, even to this day.

Kelly has the gift of making the nastiest thing sound smooth. He wasn't the first to do this. R. Kelly -- though a leader of the "thug and blues" sound -- was just one of the dozens of artists who took the electronic sound of hip-hop and married it with the sexual promiscuity of the best gansta/playa/pimp rap (with a little Prince thrown in the mix) to create the dominant vibe in the R&B music genre.

Sex, plus R&B smoothness, plus thug, plus radio play ... equals record sales.

Before the R. Kelly tape was made public, we could all dismiss the pornographic nature of a lot of hip-hop and R&B as being in the tradition of the "reals" that blues musicians used to distinguish the secular blues from the gospels and spirituals of the black church.

No more. In reality, young black women are prey in the streets and in the music. The attitude of the music can no longer be distinguished from the lifestyle of the people who make it. It would seem R. Kelly is just as nasty, just as real as his music. This should concern us.

We black people like to think of ourselves as somehow outside of mainstream white culture. Really, we are all up in it, shaped by it and shaping it ourselves. We reflect what is already going on in our neighborhoods in the music. Grown men have been preying on young women in our community since forever. In most black and immigrant communities, the idea that an adult should not have sex with girls under 18 feels like a rule imposed by another culture. Kelly's crime is being careless with his property (the video) and deviant in his sexual appetite (golden showers?).

I'm glad this came out. I think we ought to know as much as possible about these cultural icons, since they are the closest things to real politicians with a real constituency we have in the community. I need to know if they are really the porno stars or gangstas they claim to be. It might change the way the music sounds.

Kevin Weston (41kweston@pacificnews.org) is editor of Youth Outlook (YO!), a magazine by and about Bay Area youth that can be found at www.youthoutlook.org.

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