A Lesson In Subtext From R Kelly

“Ignition Remix” is an absolute classic. You’ll find it near the top spot on any “sexiest songs” ranking on the internet, and from the opening bars it’s easy to see why. The combination of smooth beat, cool delivery, and wonderfully seductive lyrics make for a song it's almost impossible not to body roll to. There’s one part of the song though, that’s always been my favorite, because it’s a really cool piece of music that showcases great lyrical talent.

In the third verse of the song, R Kelly starts singing about what happens after his show. He tells him imagined listener that he’ll take her to the after party, then the hotel lobby, and “round about four” the two of them will “clear the lobby.” The next line is undeniably the the one will clinch the verse, and begins with “then you take it to the room and.” The next word will seal the verse. He spends four lines building up to this climactic moment, the very end of the last line of the verse… and then falls silent. Instead of using any words to explain what he intends to do, he simply lets a pair of hits on a snare drum fill the space between “and” and “somebody.” It’s a brilliant moment that brings the verse perfectly to a close, and I love it.

What’s so cool about this moment is that it’s a perfect example that any aspiring writer can use to learn about subtext. On one hand, it shows us the remarkable power that subtext has. R. Kelly could have chosen any one-syllable word for “have sex with” to fill that space. Instead, though, he chooses to fill that space with the sound of a snare drum. Unlike a word, the sound allows our mind to conjure up a mental image without locking us into the specific denotation and connotation of a word. It leaves our minds free to imagine the moment in any way we want, and the pair of snare drum hits evokes sex just as powerfully as any word could have.

On the other hand, this moment also shows us what’s necessary for subtext to really work. Think about it: the reason the silent moment in “Ignition Remix” works so well is because we know exactly what words could have filled that space. If there had been any doubt or confusion in our minds whatsoever about what R Kelly planned to do in that hotel room, the silent moment would have simply confused us. Instead, because we know exactly what R Kelly wants to tell us, we can fill in the gap more fully than he ever could. In the end, subtext is much like seduction: an incredibly powerful tool, but one that has to be used properly to have its full power. It seems somehow perfectly fitting that R Kelly managed to combine them both wonderfully.

With Excitement and Optimism,

Alex