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Hear & Now

This week on the music beat, including the latest on R. Kelly

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X-Man? For most musicians, moving into film — increasing visibility, broadening appeal — is a great idea. For R. Kelly, it was a terrible idea. The multiplatinum R&B star is at the center of an ugly controversy sparked by the appearance of a videotape — anonymously mailed to the Chicago Sun-Times — that allegedly shows him having sex with a minor. Since news of the video first appeared in the Sun-Times Feb. 8, other sex tapes allegedly involving Kelly have surfaced, at least two young women (who don’t appear on tape) are threatening to file lawsuits against him, and the Chicago police are investigating. Even if Kelly, 35, avoids prosecution, has his career been irreparably hobbled by the distasteful scandal?

The day the story broke, the Chicago native — who climbed the charts with hits like ”Bump N’ Grind” and ”I Believe I Can Fly” — sang at the Olympics’ opening ceremony. And it was anticipated that his soon-to-be-released collaboration with Jay-Z, The Best of Both Worlds, might be the best-selling hip-hop album ever. But a month later, on March 19, the disc debuted with little fanfare, moving an underwhelming 230,000 copies its first week. ”It’d be selling at least double if it weren’t for [the controversy],” says Wherehouse Entertainment’s Violet Brown.

Sales have suffered, in part, due to a publicity drought. Def Jam Records, which released Worlds, recently canceled plans for a video and tour. The label even opted not to put the artists’ faces on the cover—a cover in which their names are barely visible.

Kelly and his reps are working overtime on damage control. His lawyers insist that ”no videotape of R. Kelly having sex with an underage girl exists.” Bootleg copies of the Sun-Times tape and other alleged Kelly clips are now as easy to come by as the infamous Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee home video. But Gerry Margolis, Kelly’s general counsel, says he does not know which of the illicit tapes the Chicago police have in their possession. ”How can they be beating a drum that Kelly ought to be prosecuted in connection with a tape that they won’t even show Kelly’s defense lawyers?”

While legal maneuvering continues, there’s been an attempt to refocus attention on Kelly’s music and philanthropy. A new single, ”Soldier’s Heart,” will be released this month, with proceeds going to charity. And he’s working on a solo album, Loveland, due Nov. 5. Despite Kelly’s best efforts, however, the negative PR persists. In a separate case, he just settled a suit with Tracy Sampson, a former Epic intern, who claimed Kelly began coercing her to have sex in April 2000, when she was 17. On April 4, protesters stood outside Chicago’s WGCI-FM and smashed Kelly CDs, while others picketed Sam Goody’s in Philadelphia, demanding that the chain stop selling Kelly’s discs. Still another group has begun to organize a national boycott. The singer has responded by asking fans to stand by him, something that at least one artist declined to do: Ashanti, who planned to duet with him on her blockbuster self-titled debut album (see p. 73), recorded with Ja Rule instead.