Eddie Murphy's 'Life' Shows How Complicated Canceling R. Kelly Can Be

Twenty years after the buddy comedy first debuted in theaters, its soundtrack proves problematic in the wake of serious new allegations against executive producer R. Kelly.
April 2, 2019, 4:23pm
R. Kelly

Eddie Murphy hasn’t made a funny movie in a long, long time. His 1980s and 1990s filmography is full of generational touchstones, with movies like Harlem Nights and Vampire In Brooklyn bringing the work of African-American actors and creators to cinemas across the country. But after the turn of the millennium, the provocative Saturday Night Live alum and explicit stand-up legend retreated largely into the safer and more lucrative world of children’s entertainment for roughly a decade. Though he returned to comparatively more adult fare in 2011, starring alongside Ben Stiller in the middling financial crisis caper Tower Heist, his screen time has since been scarce, though rumors of reboots and sequels surrounding some of his beloved characters crop up every few months.

Released 20 years ago this month, 1999’s Life was one of Murphy’s last comedies geared toward grown-up audiences before he descended fully into the Shrek Cinematic Universe. It tells the R-rated story of two wrongfully convicted and incarcerated African-American men, playing out over six decades. Not to be confused with the 2017 Jake Gyllenhaal sci-fi nonstarter of the same name, the Ted Demme-directed, Brian Grazer-produced feature reunited him with Martin Lawrence, who’d played a noteworthy role supporting Murphy in the 1992 box office success Boomerang.

Though Life may not carry the same commercial clout in Murphy’s film canon as Coming To America or The Nutty Professor, coming up short in American theaters against an estimated $80 million budget, its soundtrack fared far better, debuting at number 10 on the Billboard 200 album charts and ultimately earning RIAA platinum certification. This, of course, was hardly Murphy’s first win in the medium; some seven years prior, he’d found even greater success with Boomerang’s R&B-centric companion album, which was overseen by drummer and future record exec Antonio "L.A." Reid and singer Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, formerly bandmates in the 1980s group The Deele. For Life (Music Inspired By The Motion Picture), however, he went with R. Kelly, who produced or wrote the majority of its songs, including two of its singles.

Normally, the soundtrack’s 20-year anniversary would be an opportunity to revisit its impact on the popular culture of the time. But the self-proclaimed Pied Piper of R&B’s near-ubiquitous presence casts a pall on the project, as the controversial pop icon faces considerable consequences after being arrested earlier this year and indicted on 10 counts of alleged aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving four Chicago women, allegations he and his legal team have denied, followed by a second arrest for alleged unpaid child support. The indictments came in the wake of Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly, a eye-opening television series in which multiple alleged victims accused him of physical and psychological abuse. While the justice system builds its case to present in the courts, individuals across the country and the world are calling for Kelly, who found himself dropped from his recording home at RCA Records ahead of a planned new album, to be cancelled.

On an individual level, canceling an artist seems fairly straightforward. You stop supporting their efforts with your dollars, refrain from playing or streaming their music, and throw out any merch of theirs you might happen to own. But in Kelly’s case, it’s a bit more complicated. As a producer and songwriter, his fingerprints are all over the pop music of the past three decades. His wrote and produced teenaged Aaliyah’s Age Ain't Nothing But A Number, an album tainted since Vibe published the pair’s alleged marriage certificate as evidence of his illegally wedding the singer when she was 15 more than two decades ago. In addition to reviving The Isley Brothers’ career with 2001’s “Contagious,” he’s worked on records and remixes for numerous R&B icons, including Mary J Blige, Toni Braxton, and Whitney Houston, not to mention both Janet and Michael Jackson—and Billboard Hot 100-charting singles for B2K, Ginuwine, Britney Spears, and Charlie Wilson, to name a few. His credits grace albums by Big Tymers, Joe, Lady Gaga, and many others. He co-headlined two full-lengths with Jay-Z and gave the musical television smash Glee fodder for a pair of covers.

In hindsight, what is remarkable about his extensive list of collaborations is that it continued to expand even as his alleged misconduct became something of an open secret in the industry. Some of the aforementioned projects came after his 2002 and 2003 arrests in Chicago and Miami on child pornography charges—and the years prior to these arrests included a fair number of allegations and even lawsuits against Kelly, going as far back as 1996. Few, if any, who worked with, solicited work from, or in any way partnered with Kelly beyond that point could reasonably feign ignorance of the claims and rumors involving him and underage women. Yet they did so anyway, and in a plurality of cases appeared to profit or otherwise benefit as a result.

Though the Life soundtrack hit stores a few years before the aforementioned arrests, the star power he wielded at the time more or less explains how he ended up with the gig. From 1991’s “She's Got That Vibe” with Public Announcement through 1998, he’d landed well over a dozen singles of his own on the Billboard Hot 100, including chart-toppers “Bump n' Grind” and the Celine Dion duet “I’m Your Angel.” Kelly had proved a reliable winner for movie soundtracks as well, with his Space Jam anthem “I Believe I Can Fly” and his Batman & Robin single “Gotham City” reaching number 2 and number 9 on the Hot 100, respectively. Thus, from a purely commercial standpoint, he was an obvious pick to oversee the one for Life.

While the soundtrack also includes some unrelated selections produced by The Fugees’ Wyclef Jean, such as City High’s “What Would You Do” and Khadejia’s “What Goes Around,” Kelly’s contributions are pervasive. He features on nine of its 15 tracks, credited, variously, as an arranger, performer, producer, or songwriter depending on the song, and often in more than one role.

Of these, two singles he worked on ended up charting on the Hot 100. A spinoff of then-disbanded R&B quartet Jodeci, K-Ci & JoJo found their Kelly-penned “Life” (not to be confused with their 1998 smash hit “All My Life”) peak at number 60 during a 17-week run. Taking an overt cue from the movie, its coinciding music video transpires largely inside a prison, juxtaposing the duo’s flashy outfits and vocal emoting with the austere and grave surroundings.

While “Life” ranks as K-Ci & JoJo’s lowest charting Hot 100 single as a duo, the reverse is true for Maxwell’s “Fortunate.” Coming after the neo-soul singer’s 1998 sophomore outing Embrya, a more difficult work than 1996’s acclaimed and multi-platinum Urban Hang Suite, the one-time Kelly collaboration gave Maxwell a solid win on the charts, topping the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs lst and reaching number 4 on the Hot 100. A smooth slow jam, “Fortunate” demonstrated Maxwell’s staying power as an artist, even though it was anchored by an anthemic chorus he didn’t write.

Putting aside Murphy’s unfortunate repeat association with problematic figures like Kelly, Michael Jackson, and former Epic Executive Chairman L.A. Reid, who departed from the label in 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct, Life amplifies just how difficult cancelling an artist can be when they’ve spent entire careers building up bodies of work while allegedly getting away with bad, even criminal, behavior. The same concerns crop up around Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and Harvey Weinstein, all of whom impacted culture in widespread ways that aren’t always apparent. Producing television, theater, and movies, those three publicly denounced figures have so left much content in their wake that you’d practically need a forensic toolkit to collect it all for disposal.

Which goes back to the dilemma the Life soundtrack presents: Scrubbing Kelly’s albums from our music libraries is one thing, but clearly that measure can only go so far. The question, then, is whether or not people can or should keep listening to tracks he did for others, hits like the aforementioned ones by K-Ci & JoJo and Maxwell. Even those rightfully disgusted by the revelations from Surviving R. Kelly might not relish the idea of jettisoning meaningful and memorable pieces of the discographies of others just to prove a point. And doing so on a mass or institutional scale could prove detrimental to a predominantly African-American music tradition, while possibly prompting further resentment and backlash by those who see “cancel culture” as anti-Black.

Conversely, many progressives are quick to snipe that “there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism,” and there’s at least some truth to that when you apply it to Life. Whether or not Kelly continues to profit from these works, by way of YouTube streams, iTunes digital downloads, or radio airplay, their sheer existence keeps his presence the American cultural imaginary alive.

Yet even if guarantees somehow emerged that Kelly wouldn’t receive another dime from any of it, that all of the proceeds would go to his accusers and their families, on some level, the material itself still stings. As our collective reckoning with sexual misconduct in the music industry continues to unfold, questions around ethical listening and the art of alleged abusers are bound to keep cropping up, highlighted most recently in the media narrative around Mötley Crue’s Netflix biopic The Dirt. Knowing what we know, it remains up to the consumer to determine if Life is worth living through again.