Did Video Kill the Rap CD?

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In January Def Jam and Jive Records threw a joint press conference to congratulate themselves on their good fortune: Def Jam's top artist, rapper Jay-Z--the multimillion-selling kingpin of the genre--and Jive's top R.-and-B. singer, R. Kelly--whose schizoid canon runs between gospel-infused hits like I Believe I Can Fly and bedroom numbers on the order of Like a Freak--were collaborating on an album. Synergy isn't a science, but given the platinum pedigrees of both artists, the album, The Best of Both Worlds, could plausibly have become the first hip-hop record to sell 1 million copies in its first week of release.

The event, held at Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, was a huge, gaudy success. Johnnie Cochran and P. Diddy made cameos, as did a coterie of men in full-length furs who sipped Cristal from gold chalices. The whole thing cost $100,000, a rounding error compared with what would be spent on the album's first video. With any luck, it would all come back tenfold.

The Best of Both Worlds arrived in stores March 19 and sold just 230,000 copies in its first week. The problem, it turns out, was another video. In early February the Chicago Sun-Times received a tape from an anonymous source that purported to show Kelly, 33, a Chicago native, having a sexual encounter with a minor. Local police then launched an investigation. Within weeks, the video landed on the Internet and on bootleg tables across America's inner cities. Now available as R. Kelly Exposed, the 35-minute tape shows a man who appears to be Kelly ejaculating and urinating on what appears to be an adolescent girl. (Illinois law prohibits sex with anyone under 17.) Kelly's lawyer, John Touhy, denies that it is his client on the tape. "No videotape of Robert Kelly having sex with an underage girl exists, and any such statements that there is such a tape are false and malicious."

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Kelly's label, Jive, blames the disappointing sales of The Best of Both Worlds on CD bootlegging and an industrywide depression. Def Jam and Jay-Z are not even making excuses: they're just fleeing the scene. Def Jam won't release photos of Jay-Z and R. Kelly together, and Jay-Z, through an intermediary, thanked the editor of Vibe magazine for removing him from a cover with Kelly. Elaborate plans for a video and tour have been scrapped. "We don't want any negative associations that might come with a video, any accusations or anything," says Def Jam president Kevin Lyles.

Kelly's problems are more serious than a tanking album. In addition to the Chicago police investigation, an inquiry has been launched by the sex-crimes unit of the Cook County state's attorney's office. Kelly has drawn scrutiny from such authorities in the past; in 1994 he married his protege, Aaliyah, when she was 15. Aaliyah lied about her age on the marriage certificate, and the marriage was quickly annulled when her parents found out.

Kelly then married one of his backup singers in 1996, but the allegations of sex with underage girls continued. Two women filed and settled civil suits claiming that Kelly slept with them while they were minors. Both were represented by Susan Loggans, who says she has two more clients with aborning civil complaints against Kelly. "Typically he meets girls at parties," says Loggans. "Usually they're South Side girls, and he invites them to his recording studio." One of Loggans' clients wanted to be a rap artist. "Kelly told her, 'I'll listen to you; maybe I'll use you as a backup singer.' Then he gets involved in a sexual relationship with them." Gerry Margolis, Kelly's entertainment lawyer, responds, "Loggans is reciting contentions as if they are facts. All of that is in dispute."

A Chicago police spokesman says its investigation is proceeding, but police have failed to identify the girl on the tape or even verify that the tape is authentic, despite the fact that the man in it peers directly into the camera several times and the scene takes place in a wood-paneled room that strongly resembles one in Kelly's house where the singer has posed for various magazine covers.

Hip-hop artists know that a flirtation with the wrong side of the law isn't always a bad career move, but Kelly's situation is different. Mainstream audiences who know him for I Believe I Can Fly are likely to stop looking his way for wholesome fare. The hip-hop crowd--an audience familiar with his raunchy side on tracks like Feelin' On Yo Booty--may find the tease that once buoyed those songs has a very different tone now.