Tom Sinclair
May 28, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Two years ago, R. Kelly’s career was toast. Thanks to a notoriously noxious videotape — the one that showed a man who looked remarkably like Kelly engaging in hair-raisingly graphic and perverse sex acts with a girl police claim was 14 years old at the time — the R&B star had become an overnight pariah. Radio stations were dumping him from their playlists. Artists such as Nas and Sisqo began publicly deriding him. And his highly anticipated collaboration with Jay-Z, ”The Best of Both Worlds” (released right after news of the video broke), was positively shunned by consumers, handing Kelly his first-ever flop. Into the midst of this scandal Kelly lobbed a song that struck some as unbelievably arrogant and self-serving. It was a ballad called ”Heaven I Need a Hug,” and it seemed to address his troubles without being explicit about their nature (a good thing, since that tape depicted, among other things, the sexual fetish euphemistically known as ”water sports”). The chorus posed a question that reeked of hubris: ”Heaven I need a hug/Is there anybody out there willing to embrace a thug?”

It’s now clear that most of Kelly’s fan base have answered with a resounding ”Yes!” Although the Chicago native faces 14 counts of child pornography in Illinois related to the videotape (if convicted, he reportedly faces a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $100,000 fine; Kelly has pleaded not guilty), his career appears to be flourishing. His two 2003 albums, ”Chocolate Factory” and the hits collection ”The R. in R&B, Vol. 1,” have gone triple and double platinum, respectively. His new single, ”Happy People,” is zipping up the charts. And Kelly, 37, remains a sought-after collaborator whose presence on another artist’s song practically guarantees a hit. Last January, the NAACP even nominated him for its Image award.

A source familiar with the ”Best of Both Worlds” debacle remembers that after the scandal broke, ”everything just ended. The label had all these plans for promoting the album, and literally in just one day everything was canceled.” But on the eve of Kelly’s new CD, ”Happy People/U Saved Me” (due July 13), things couldn’t be more different. A double-disc set produced, composed, and performed by Kelly, the album is divided between up-tempo ”steppin”’ music on the first CD and inspirational ”I Believe I Can Fly”-ish ballads on the second. His label, Jive, is gearing up for a big promotional push, videotapes and criminal cases be damned (Jive declined to comment).

So how did the self-proclaimed ”pied piper of R&B” — whose alleged videotape has been widely bootlegged — avoid becoming another Michael Jackson? The answer may be as simple as a consistent string of strong records. ”Nothing makes people forget all that negative noise like a big ol’ hit,” says one major-label marketing exec. ”People are like, ‘R. Kelly did what? That’s terrible. But I love his new song! Try not to do it again.”’

Young rapper Cassidy, who collaborated with Kelly on his first single, ”Hotel,” had no qualms about working with the singer. ”I don’t got nothin’ but love for him,” says the 21-year-old artist. ”You gotta be able to separate the business from somebody’s personal life. Same with Bill Clinton. I don’t feel as though what happened with him and Monica Lewinsky affected what type of President he was. With R. Kelly, I don’t really know what’s the truth. All I know is, every time he comes up with a song, I like it.”

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