When I interviewed R. Kelly in 2007 about his then-upcoming release Double Up, I was eager to find out how much legendary crooner Sam Cooke had influenced the singer-songwriter, if Cooke—perhaps my all-time favorite male vocalist—had been a conscious touchstone for Kells’ style and approach to vocalizing. This is what he told me when I asked about “I Wish” (to my mind, his most Cooke-ish moment of them all): “I usually don’t hear my influences til the song is over with. While I’m writing I’m so into what I’m hearing on the radio in my head that I’m just, like, ‘Wow I can’t wait to finish this so everybody else can hear what I’ve just heard.’ Once it’s done it’s like ‘Oh man, that riff right there is like some Same Cooke shit!” Then, sitting there in that Chicago hotel room, coincidentally getting his hair braided as we we’re talking, he sings some “I Wish” lyrics—“Come on and braid my hair”—to make his point. I’ve always contended that R. Kelly was the true songwriting heir apparent to brilliant r&b songwriter/producers like Gamble and Huff and gifted singer-songwriters like Stevie and Marvin. Even when dabbling in over-the-top sex jams like “Bump and Grind” there was still always this incredible melodic sensibility and sturdy song construction that betrayed Kelly’s obvious commercial imperatives. Kelly’s best songs—and “I Wish” is one of his best, one of the best r&b records of the past 20 years—are scarred and bruised paeans to joy and pain, hinting at extremely complicated emotions. “I Wish” wins so much because its sad loping, acoustic rhythms perfectly match the song’s lyrics of loss, blending Kelly’s gift for colloquial expression that doesn’t pander with his dramatic renditions of outsize emotions. There is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality to some moments: the gospel chorus, the kids’ shouts, the expansive and commingled references to the deaths of his mother and two friends which inspired the song. But Kelly somehow balances all of it, using his best Cooke influences and wedding them to his own rugged elegance. The best popular music stands the test of time not just because of a great chorus or fabulous vocals; sometimes good old-fashioned craft can turn a song in a timeless moment. “I Wish”—sad, hopeful, elegiac, and defiantly of the streets—is crafted like the best of them. Mr. Cooke would be proud.
Listen to it here: