The metaphor really isn’t too subtle. I’m sure that at the time I got into the remix to ‘Ignition’, somewhere around the age of 14 or so, I didn’t quite grasp the innuendo. To be fair, I wasn’t really listening for it. Like much other ‘hip-hop’ I was exposed to as a tween, I probably imagined it was a materialistic ditty, something about rappers driving expensive cars. To be doubly fair, the remix to ‘Ignition’, foreshadowed at the very end of this song as something Kells ‘usually doesn’t do’, is nothing near as sexually charged as the original. The remix, if anything, is more conventionally sassy, with Kelly oozing confidence as he sings to his imagined paramour. ‘Ignition’, by contrast, leaves little to the imagination as the RnB superstar opens the piece suggesting ‘you remind me of something. I just can’t think what it is’ when patently he can. You remind him of a car. He wants to stick his key in your ignition.
And yet, there is something innately funky, intrinsically sensual about ‘Ignition’ that you just would not expect with figurative lyrics as boldly transparent as R. Kelly’s are. Apart from ‘World’s Greatest’ which legitimately makes me gag every time I hear it, R. Kelly, love him or hate him, clearly had the sex-crooner status down pat long before pretenders to the throne like Usher, Ne-Yo and, shudder, Chris Brown arrived on the scene. It’s not an easy path to tread. Not only has the subject been done to death in mainstream culture since sexual liberation hit the headlines but keeping a straight face about it all, sounding sincerely sexual, is no mean feat. So visually saturated are our daily existences that the prospect of imagining something kinky based on words alone – sweetly delivered by Kells notwithstanding – is not one that readily excites. Sex in film, on TV and in video clips is obvious, salacious, in your face. Sex in music is figurative, distant and requires we suspend disbelief. R. Kelly is the master of disbelief.
Off his bestselling 2003 release Chocolate Factory, which went on to sell 3 million copies, ‘Ignition’ was R. Kelly’s second number one single in the UK after Space Jam favourite, ‘I Believe I Can Fly’. The gulf between those tracks tends to recommend R. Kelly’s versatility as an artist but to my ears, he just does two extreme ends of the spectrum exceedingly well: heartrending Hollywood-sports-film-finale-type fare and this, sex on a stick. ‘Ignition’, although it has since been surpassed for recognition by its more commercial, remixed cousin, is superb. As long as you recognise what it is. The harmonising rounding out of each line (bordering on unnecessary for phrases like ‘ticket babe’), the jumpy guitar riffs underpinned by thicker, more grounded bass lines and sparse percussion (handclaps, synthetic cabasas – the usual) form the somewhat flimsy frame that surrounds the track. But beyond musicality, this is a song that revels in the crude because it knows it can. If this was just R. Kelly’s mellifluous vocals and a handclap every other verse, I’d still listen to it. That remains one of the song’s most enduring recommendations. Well that and I’ll never look at the traffic lights the same way again.
R. Kelly – Ignition