With more than 38 million albums sold over the past 20 years, R. Kelly's provocative style and tender ballads have helped to define the sound of modern R&B. Like many artists who were inspired by singing in the church choir -- he was a mere 8 years old when he realized his calling -- Robert Sylvester Kelly quickly proved he was far from ordinary after the release of his debut album, 'Born Into the '90s.' He entered the music industry alongside the now defunct Public Announcement, but broke away from the group to go solo after the first project dropped to release his career-launching effort, '12 Play.'
Nov. 9 marked the 20-year anniversary of that musical debut, and now Kellz is paying homage to the project that turned him into a household name with his 12th solo LP, 'Black Panties,' due Dec. 10. Over the last two decades, his sensual lyrics and to-the-point videos got him noticed, but it was his melodic creativity and topical diversity that kept fans wanting more. From 'I Believe I Can Fly' to the 'Trapped in the Closet' series, R. never had a shortage of inspirational messages or WTF story lines to pass along.
So while the Chicago native may have 12 ways to make your love come down, The Boombox has 20 of the gospel-turned-R&B singer's greatest hits for you to reminisce with. From 'Down Low' to 'I Wish,' you just can't get enough. Check out R. Kelly's 20 Best Songs below.
'I Can't Sleep Baby (If I)' (1995)
It's hard to turn off the radio or press skip on a CD when R. Kelly's pleading for his woman to come back to him. And when it comes to this video, who doesn't want to think about returning to their man in a fire-lit cabin in the middle of winter?
As Kellz might be the 'Sex Me' king, he uses this track to let the ladies know his love runs deep -- no pun intended. So while he's quick to make the panties drop, Kelly's telling every woman in the world he can't sleep until his baby comes back, and well, that just makes 'em swoon.
Robert Kelly took the term "baby-making music" to new heights with this one. Way before Twitter and memes turned song lyrics into catchphrases, the Chi-town singer turned an R&B hook into an everyday expression. So when you're ready to take that next step with your chick, just tell her you wanna go half on a baby. She'll know what's up. (Though we can't guarantee she'll react positively to your offer.)
'The Greatest Sex' (2000)
When it comes to great sex, every woman (and man) wants all their secret fantasies fulfilled. With the help of R. Kelly, "the greatest touch [and] the greatest kiss," "what comes to be is the greatest [sexual] wish" you'll ever imagine. Sex with him is "like a voyage when the storm begins to roar. There's no telling what [the] night could have in store."
While this song never charted -- because it wasn't released as a single -- the 'TP-2.com' album ranked No. 1 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. Even as an album cut, this track definitely sits as one of the most popular records on the project to date.
If nothing else, you can turn this song on and be almost guaranteed that a love child will be born nine months later.
In 1992, Kelly and his group, Public Announcement, released their debut album, 'Born Into the 90's.' It's debatable whether or not the LP can be considered Kelly's official debut album, but there's no question that the singer plus PA's three members made their share of hits together.
While this track didn't bode well with Billboard's Hot 100 chart, that didn't seem to matter to fans because they couldn't get enough of the video. The Chicago Stepper gives it to the ladies with his dancing, but he makes sure the men have plenty to look at as honey pours across his woman's legs and Halle Berry makes a continuous cameo in the background. What man wouldn't be mesmerized with these visuals? And did anyone catch the Blow Pop in his girl's mouth? This is one of his best visual supplements of all time.
'Feelin' On Yo Booty' (2000)
Not only is the song dedicated to the admiration of, well, a nice ass, but Kelly found a way to get every popular rapper from the '90s and 2000s to join him in the video, including Method Man, Fat Joe and Nelly. The guys give insatiable dayum-look-at-that-ass faces while showing off their swag. And to top things off, the then 33-year-old R&B singer couldn't wrap the song without laughing as he created a silhouette of the perfect "bbbbooottttyyyy" with his hands.
While '12 Play' is irrefutably one of the Chicago-bred entertainer's better projects, 'TP-2.com' sits right alongside the 1993 LP. With multiple hit single -- mainstream and album cuts -- Kelly's fifth studio album sold approximately four million copies for a reason, and this track should be in those thank you credits.
'I Wish' starts as a tribute to a friend who passed away too soon. The song later transforms into a dedication to his late mother, Joanne, who died in 1993. As he's singing, reminiscing about the days he dreamed of making it out of the hood, Robert gets a spiritual visit from his mother and everything changes.
To illustrate the change in the video's point of view, Kelly goes from a black suit to a white tee and sweats as he shifts from a cemetery to an all-white room with the word "Joanne" written on the back wall. When real fans listen closely, he pays homage to his upbringing using gospel vocals in the background to honor his mother.
Before R. Kelly and Jay Z made their collaborative project, 'The Best of Both Worlds,' in 2002, the hip-hop and R&B duo gave fans a preview of what they had to offer. Hov jumped on the remix to Kelly's No. 6 Billboard Hot 100 single and the result was a hit. The obvious next step was to cut an album together.
While the album didn't necessarily highlight either artist's best talents, it was the Best of Both Worlds tour that followed two years later that showed why one great song together doesn't equate to a lifelong musical partnership. But if nothing else, the two will always have 'Feista.'
'I'm A Flirt (Remix)' (2007)
Beyond the bedroom hits, Kellz knows what it takes to make a club banger. When 'I'm A Flirt' dropped, Kelly put the word out for every man to hear: "The moral of the story is cuff your bitch / 'Cause hey, I'm black, handsome and sing / Plus I'm rich, and I'm a flirt." In other words, start doing what you know he excels at 'cause he has no problem showing your girl everything you can't or won't do for her.
But while R. lets dudes in the club know what's up, T.I.'s verse helps the King of R&B get straight to the point. "Better treat your girl right 'cause another man will / Better eat your girl like another man will / 'Cause you'll leave your wife and I'll see your wife, now for real how long you think that's gonna be your wife?"
Moral of the story: take your girl to the club at your own risk.
'Your Body's Callin' (1993)
When this track comes on, there's no question that everyone in the room will know the words. Not only did the album that houses this single reach No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart -- it also sat on the overall chart for 65 weeks -- but the song came in at No. 13 on Billboard's Hot 100 and sold more than 500,000 copies.
'Your Body's Callin'' sits alongside five additional hits off Kelly's '93 album, and can still be found on any R&B this-is-how-you-get-the-panties-off playlist or slow jams CD 20 years later. That's not just a hit, that's a movement.
Following the success of his Chicago stepping hit, ‘Step In the Name of Love,' R. Kelly decided to release another old school stepper classic just one year later. 'Happy People' became the go-to feel-good song across the country, and found itself in constant radio rotation during the fall of 2004.
Peaking at No. 19 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and No. 7 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart, Robert Kelly found a way to strike lightning twice: he popularized the Midwest's throwback dance style. Living up to the song’s name, the song is still played at family reunions, barbeques, weddings and on a good ol' crowded dance floor.
'When A Woman's Fed Up' (1998)
He may know a thing or two about great sex, but he's no stranger to an upset woman. This 'R.' cut takes it back to the days when the Pied Piper gave fans a good concept video to rock with.
The video starts exactly where it ends -- with Sparkle running out the house in the middle of the night with a man who's doing what her own dude won't do. Kelly screams after her, then slams the window shut as he says "you'll bring that ass back." But she and her other man just keep on driving away.
Someone should have made an early rendition of 'I'm A Flirt' back in the day because in 1998, he clearly didn't treat her or eat her right.
Spending 12 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart, the second single from '12 Play' became the longest charting No. 1 R&B single in the U.S. in 1993.
Kelly sold over 500,000 copies of the song. This No. 1 hit certainly wouldn't be his last. And like 'Your Body's Callin',' this track's a definite panty-dropper.
'Seems Like You're Ready' (1993)
While this song never produced an official video, the only thing that needs to come to mind is Diamond's strip tease in 'The Players Club.' Giving the effect of the Red Light District, the long-haired beauty -- played by LisaRaye McCoy -- walks out to the stage in a pink silk negligee. While grinding any section of air she can find, "man's best friend" strips down to a diamond-laced pink thong bikini. And what's playing in the background? R. Kelly's 'Seems Like You're Ready.'
In hindsight, no video was needed. 'The Players Club' was all the imagery anyone could want to visualize what this song was all about. Praise the man that invented "rewind."
'Ignition (Remix)' (2003)
Before anyone even knew a remix would be made, Kellz built anticipation for the three-minute-plus track by giving fans a snippet of what he had at the end of the original single. “Now usually I don’t do this, but go on and give them a little preview of the remix,” he sings. In retrospect, it seems like Kelly knew he had a chart-topping single on his hands before it was even released.
The bouncy track and its musical call out for four-word actions -- "toot, toot; beep, beep" -- in the chorus became the singer's biggest hit of the early 2000s, spending four consecutive weeks at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. It even reappeared on the U.K.’s music chart, sitting at No. 43 in April of this year (2013).
'Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)' (1995)
With a weekend job offered by Mr. Biggs and an irresistible woman to go with it, R. Kelly and Ron Isley embarked on the longest-running soap opera in music history. Sex, love, intrigue, betrayal, lust, deceit and seduction -- it was like a non-stop Lifetime movie that men would actually enjoy.
It all started with a few simple words. "I want you to take her out and give her anything she wants, but you are never to touch her." Well, that was a paradoxical statement Biggs quickly learned to regret. Kelly's supposed to give LaLa anything she wants -- she wants him. But he's not allowed to touch her. So the real question is which statement was more important than the other? Does he give her what she wants, or does he not touch her?
Mr. Biggs' instructions were confusing. Period. Kelly decides that giving her what she wants is more important than keeping his hands to himself. In theory, he was just following orders.
Straightforward and to the point, the Chicago hitmaker leaves no question about what he wants -- he even drops a soundbite of unzipped pants right before the second verse. Fulfilling secret fantasies and any position requested, he doesn’t care as long as he can hear his lady make the “ooh aah" sound.
With the beat's vibrations pouring through speakers, headphones or a car stereo, people can't help but feel the juices flowing as they begin to sweat when Kellz makes it known that "you've got a need for [him], and he's got a need for [you]."
Usually played in clubs as the last song of the night, it becomes music's “last call” before the night begins to get a little more interesting. It's brash, unapologetic and downright raunchy, but it will get you moving "up and down to a 67 tempo." You can feel the rhythm just thinking about it.
'You Remind Me of Something' (1995)
Back when Hummers, 4x4s and Grand Cherokees were the cars to stunt in, Kelly created a song that worked as an extended metaphor comparing his girl to his Jeep.
The visual showcases more than 20 Jeep cameo shots that continually cut back and forth between the woman he wants and the car itself. This record served as the perfect 'Ignition' set up. First, women are SUVs, and somehow they transform right into the very electric device that gets everything flowing. It's genius.
Sixty-nine has always been the magic number, but who knew R. Kelly would be the one to put 12 on the map. The similarly titled album topped the Billboard charts, and serves as the Chi-town entertainer's second highest-selling album to date. After all, the single was every couple's guide to ultimate four play, so of course the album was going to sell.
Aside from the song's mainstream attraction, Kelly's word play reached new heights here. He makes it his duty to "fulfill all your fantasies" on every album, but this time he takes sex fiends (and fans) to another level. "Four / Lie down on the floor / Five / Cannot wait to come inside," he sings. Can you feel the double entendre in those 12 words?
If you're looking for ways to spice things up in the bedroom, the King of R&B has 12 things for you to try. And just like Kanye quoted, "No one knows what that means, but it's provocative!"
'Step in the Name of Love (Remix)' (2003)
Since the 'Electric Slide,' and any line-step dance that came before it, people can't seem to get enough of the paint-by-numbers dance approach that tells us what to do. “Step step, side-to-side / 'Round and 'round, dip it now / Separate, bring it back / Now let me see you do the love slide,” R. Kelly sings.
The Pied Piper of R&B gave the world a how-to on how to step to a swing-style dance popular in Chicago. The song charted at No. 9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and was also R. Kelly’s 10th and final No. 1 single on the Hot R&B Songs chart -- as of today. The popularity of this helped usher in the brief grown and sexy movement of the mid-2000s that even had teenagers “put on their dancing shoes” to go to clubs.
Kelly followed this track up with his two-disc album, 'Happy People/U Saved Me,'where the first 11 songs were made to step to.
'I Believe I Can Fly' (1996)
Every artist needs that one motivational song that helps make people feel like they're on top of the world. For R.Kelly, 'I Believe I Can Fly' was just that.
Similar to 'I Wish,' the music legend revisits his gospel roots to produce one of the most acclaimed soundtrack hits of the '90s. The 46-year-old singer uses the musical ballad to help bring Michael Jordan's cartoon-filled, loosely biographical film, 'Space Jam,' to life.
While the song didn't appear on his own project, 'R.' until 1998, it premiered in the Warner Bros. movie in 1996. For you Kelly nerds, that's the year Notorious B.I.G. broke into tears hearing just one line from the song when the singer was still putting it together. "When I was playing it for him, I was thinking, he's a hardcore rapper; this is gonna be too soft for him, but when I got through and looked up, his face was wet with tears," Kelly said in his memoir, 'Soulacoaster: The Diary of Me.' "'My brother,' he said, 'They gonna be playing that when you and I have moved on to the other side of time.'"
With that said, there should be no question as to why this inspirational ode is No. 1.