When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Sam Amidon takes on R. Kelly’s “Relief.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
People have very different perspectives on R. Kelly. There are many who consider him the greatest R&B artist of the past 20 years, taking into account that he, perhaps more than any other artist of the genre, writes his own songs, many of which are chart-topping hits. Moreover, Kelly has written for a star-studded list of clients that includes Gladys Knight, the Isley Brothers, Janet Jackson, Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, among many others. And if awards count for anything, perhaps as a quantitative measure of quality, then Kelly should certainly be regarded highly, his proverbial mantle being littered with the industry’s top accolades almost since the start of his career.
Others, however, have a difficult time separating the personal from the professional. The allegations of Kelly’s sexual misdeeds and ego mania have driven these observers far from the reach of his undeniably massive talents, creating a sort-of sin barrier, if you will. (On a smaller scale, many people have the same reaction when Kanye West’s name comes up; “I think he’s a genius, but I can’t listen to him” is a sentiment I’ve been exposed to as recent as Monday afternoon.) This perspective is rational, too, as far as I’m concerned, if for no other reason that music, of all the art forms, is perhaps the most personal.
“Relief,” a Kelly track that would’ve appeared on 12 Play: 4th Quarter had it ever been released, makes it hard to choose sides, being filled with a positivity that anyone with a beating heart could relate to. It’s utopian, to be sure; the “war” is most certainly not over, Mr. Kelly (though I’m personally glad to know about those angels in the sky)—but it’s desire for global “relief” is admirable, revealing a selflessness about Kelly that should make an impression on even his most visceral detractors. And if the we-are-the-world message doesn’t cut it, the song’s impressively stark production will: Kelly is a master of doing much with very little.
For his part, young, experimental folk songwriter Sam Amidon keeps “Relief” simple, but he composes with a completely different set of instruments more attuned to his expertise. The effect is quite beautiful: Nico Muhly’s string arrangements undergird banjo, acoustic guitar, piano, xylophone and Amidon’s relaxed, porch-perfect voice, making the song largely unrecognizable from the original, save Kelly’s uplifting motif. Indeed, out of all the covers we’ve featured over the years, Amidon’s is easily one of the most transformative, a subtle nod to the source material and a wholly distinct work all its own.
Cast your vote wisely.