Can 'When a Woman Loves' Redeem R. Kelly?

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The greatest artistic danger of our current exhaustive celebrity culture is this: that everything we know about a star's sexual proclivities, drug use, relationships with their parents, bad friends, good friends, children, managers, and the police make it impossible for them to disappear into a role or a song. There are a number of people who have particularly fallen victim, or victimized themselves this way in recent years: Lindsay Lohan's chaotic life essentially shut down her career, and it really remains to see if she'll recover professionally; rumors of creepy Scientology contracts and fake marriages have fueled jokes and speculation that Katie Holmes is a brainwashed puppet beard for Tom Cruise; Evan Rachel Wood's relationship with Marilyn Manson made her look like she was perpetually, and ineffectively, acting out.


However, none of them have quite the self-inflicted damage that R. Kelly has visited on himself. If you're going to be a troubadour of love and freakiness, it's probably best to make sure the girls you're sleeping with in real life are legal, and that you're not videotaping yourself doing things you can't sing about in a straightforward manner on the radio.

But damn, is his new song "When A Woman Loves" good enough to obliterate those associations (and the class-tastic black and white video helps):


Seriously, this is first-dance wedding music, people. If anything, it's too raw and personal for even that kind of public intimacy. This is about worshipping "the girl who raised me." The protestations that Kelly is "forever indebted" come across as totally sincere. And it's a great reminder of what Kelly's capable of doing with his voice: the tones he infuses into the simple word "she" are extravagant and delicate, the rawness is there when he wants it to be. It's genuinely transcendent, both as a one-off artistic experience, and of Kelly's astonishing baggage.
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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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