R. Kelly is a hometown hero in Chicago, an R&B superstar who grabbed the brass ring of fame and riches. His smooth, sexy songs are loved by millions, the soundtrack of countless weddings and barbecues.
Or, at least, he was.
R. Kelly can’t read. He’s a “crude man” who sometimes smells, from not bathing, and trolls suburban malls picking up teenage girls, whom he sexually molests, sometimes on video.
Or, at least, he did.
Both descriptions of Kelly are true, though the first image is finally fading in the glare of the second. The serpentine process, 20 years in the making, is laid out in “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly” (Abrams, $26), a captivating if sometimes disjointed journalism procedural by Jim DeRogatis, former music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
The book starts with an anonymous fax sent to DeRogatis just before Thanksgiving 2000. “I’m sending this to you because I don’t know where else to go,” it begins. “Robert’s problem — and it’s a thing that goes back many years — is young girls.”
DeRogatis tosses the fax on a pile. But he returns to pull the thread, and the tale slowly unravels, taking on weight and momentum.
“This was a story, and it had chosen me,” he realizes.
It was a lonely journey at first. DeRogatis lets the narrative slowly build, as he and investigative partner Abdon Pallasch make calls and have doors slammed in their faces.
“It was all getting very, very confusing — and overwhelming,” he writes.
At times. When the story was unfolding, I, like a lot of people, shrugged it off. Which is not something to be proud of but not necessarily the indictment DeRogatis presents it as being, either. It’s a big world, with lots of stuff that isn’t R. Kelly.
Nor do Kelly’s purported victims immediately grab at the heartstrings.
“If I would tell it” one says to DeRogatis, “it would be in front of somebody’s huge television camera, and they’d have to be paying me a whole bunch of money.”
DeRogatis persists and fleshes out the human wreckage left in Kelly’s wake, girls as young as 14 who had the misfortune to dial the phone number pressed into their hands by one of Kelly’s flunkies.
The book accelerates after DeRogatis is given a videotape that seems to show Kelly urinating into the mouth of a teenage girl. DeRogatis immediately gives the tape to the police, and the best part of the book is recounting the resulting trial.
The book is a good primer on the case, particularly for readers in Chicago, reminding us how the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. James Meeks carried water for Kelly when the charges were first aired.
While the book is not what I would call a fount of fascination — too much fretting over who sent the fax, who dropped off the tape, plus score-settling with fellow critics — it did have a few of the piquant details that one reads nonfiction to learn. I couldn’t decide whether my favorite fact was Kelly speaking with the voice of Lucifer in the bathroom of the East Bank Club or Kelly trying to get his Hartford homeowners insurance policy to pay the settlement used to mute one of the girls who said he abused her.
R. Kelly is seen reflected in a hundred broken surfaces in “Soulless,” a monstrous, self-pitying, heartless individual luring in young girls for their pliability — they’d do what he says and not challenge his limited worldview. He never quite comes into focus, and that’s probably a good thing.
Just as Dante is the star of the Divine Comedy, so the most clearly limned person in the book is DeRogatis, and I enjoyed getting to know him better. From his high school interview with Lester Bangs two weeks before the iconic rock critic’s death, to his struggling to navigate the moral shoals of R. Kelly’s misdeeds, DeRogatis writes with passion and conviction, and he compels the reader to care.
While I could quibble with a few of his characterizations, DeRogatis accurately conveys the tortured, halting, hurtling, sweaty, fearful, diligent, solitary, collaborative effort that is daily journalism. This might not be “Call Northside 777,” but it is a reminder that journalism is hard, and it matters.
The freshness of the material no doubt caused him narrative headaches — Kelly was charged with new counts just a week ago — but DeRogatis comes off as reliable and honest, recounting this tawdry tragedy and demanding that the public care more than it has up to now.