In a career defined by sex, R. Kelly's latest escape is his greatest

NEW YORK (AP) _ In a career full of escapes, this was R. Kelly's greatest.

During his 16-year career, Kelly's star continued to rise despite marriage to a 15-year-old and songs so explicit they might have gotten other artists boycotted. The future dimmed briefly six years ago, when the R&B superstar was charged with videotaping almost unspeakable sex acts with a girl as young as 13, but since then he only sold more records and collected more hits.

On Friday, Kelly was acquitted of all the child pornography charges, despite a litany of witnesses who testified that he was the man on the videotape. With a new album scheduled for release this year, his continued success seems assured.

Sex has defined R. Kelly's career since he first came on the musical landscape in 1992 with the group Public Announcement. While his early hits included innocuous songs like "She's Got That Vibe" and "Slow Dance," the album also had songs like "Honey Love" -- suggestive, but not far out of step with much of the material on the radio at the time.

But in 1994, his No. 1 hit "Bump 'N Grind" became a defining moment for the budding superstar, making him R&B's unabashed, unapologetic stud. Whereas other male singing superstars certainly crooned about sex, there was always a bit of restraint, a touch of decorum that kept their expression of desire from turning crass.

Kelly's music was hailed as genius by some, with irresistible melodies and compelling instrumentation. But the lyrics often lacked nuance, and over the years they became even more raw, more explicit. Although Kelly's musical catalog represents significant range in subject matter -- from inspirational gospel to romantic love anthems to relationship drama to celebratory party music -- the topic that has most defined his music is sexuality.

The titles speak for themselves: "Sex Me," ''Your Body's Calling," ''The Greatest Sex," ''Sex in the Kitchen," ''Sex Weed," and the campy classic "Feelin' On Yo Booty," with lyrics so over the top that even Kelly couldn't deny its ridiculousness, laughing at the end of the song. Though he won his three Grammys in 1997 for "I Believe I Can Fly" -- a song played in churches and covered by gospel artists -- that was an anomaly for an artist who had become identified with sexy lyrics.

"People have to learn how to separate me from show business," Kelly, who shied away from talking to the press, told The New York Times in a 2003 interview, a year after the child pornography charges against him were launched (Kelly has three children and is estranged from his wife).

But Kelly's sexual image was only enhanced by his personal life. In 1994, the 15-year-old singer Aaliyah made her recording debut, presenting a sensuous image with Kelly as her mentor and producer. He wrote songs for her such as "Age Ain't Nothin But A Number" -- which may now seem prescient to some -- and was seen in her videos. It was later revealed that they wed in a secret ceremony; the marriage and their musical union were both quickly annulled.

While Kelly's relationship with Aaliyah may have disturbed some, radio kept playing him and fans kept buying. But in 2002, the videotape surfaced, which purported to show Kelly having sex with a young girl, and even urinating on her. Copies were sold on street corners nationwide, some wondered whether audiences would be as accepting of his music: How could fans listen to songs like "The Greatest Sex" -- or even "I Believe I Can Fly" -- without wincing?

Many speculated that the allegations were a blow that Kelly could never recover from: This reporter recalls interviewing a major music star at the time who declared "R. Kelly is over!"

But he wasn't. He returned to the music scene a year later with a creative triumph, the critically acclaimed "Chocolate Factory." The album included the feel-good dance anthem "Step in the Name of Love," but was fueled by the smash "Ignition" -- yet another sexually charged song in which Kelly likened sex to the process of starting a car.

The album sold 2.8 million copies, and was one of his best-selling albums. It was clear that the power of magical music was enough to overcome the weight of the criminal charges against him. (And that major music star? He later became one of Kelly's collaborators.)

Not that Kelly didn't suffer any repercussions. Before the videotape, he was on the cusp of the mainstream, with Grammy awards and performances at an NFL playoff game and the Winter Olympics. After the charges were filed, there were no Grammys, late night show performances or major sponsors.

Yet Kelly didn't seem bothered; it seemed as if he enjoyed being music's freak show. After the success of "Chocolate Factory," his music got even more grimy and sexual. Since 2002, Kelly has released seven albums, including a joint record with Jay-Z.

R&B singer R. Kelly waves as he leaves the Cook County Criminal Court Building Friday. Associated Press
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