Party Like It’s 1999: Céline Dion & R. Kelly’s “I’m Your Angel”

In Party Like It’s 1999, I’m marking my birthday June 25th by reviewing every Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit from my birth year 1999 along with other notable hits from the year.

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Céline Dion & R. Kelly- “I’m Your Angel”

HIT #1: December 5, 1998 

STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks (including 2 weeks in 1999)

Last year, the harrowing Lifetime documentary Surviving R. Kelly launched a much overdue reckoning on R. Kelly and how we’ve been able to excuse his troubling behavior just because he’s a good artist who’s made some good tunes. In that reckoning, many of us have been wondering what to do with the songs that we’ve enjoyed for so many years. For me, it’s not as complicated as most. I didn’t grow up with R. Kelly’s music and while I may have later recognized some of his songs as good, he wasn’t an artist that I gravitated towards. I guess that’s a good thing.

The interesting thing about this reckoning to me is the fact that no one seems to remember R. Kelly’s actual biggest Hot 100 hit, a sweet nothing ballad collaboration with Céline Dion that dominated the top spot through much of the holiday season in 1998 going into 1999.

There are two kinds of #1 hits. One are the undeniable classics. The songs that become so popular that they wind up representing for better or worse the era they were popular in. These are songs that continue to be played and be used in various media. The other are the more obscure footnotes. Songs that may have been big in their day but have since been largely forgotten from the cultural memory. 

“I’m Your Angel” is the most extreme of the second kind. The song has left absolutely no cultural footprint since its chart run. No one covers it. No one samples it. No one uses it in movie or TV soundtracks. No one uses it in commercials. Even in the wake of the R. Kelly backlash, no one brought up “I’m Your Angel.” It seems like the public in 1999 got amnesia from listening to the song. Due to this afterlife, I listen to “I’m Your Angel” and wonder what was it that made it such a big hit.

The easiest factor I can think of for the success of “I’m Your Angel” is the star power of both artists at the time. While R. Kelly and Céline Dion were two different artists from different backgrounds, in late 1998 they were both coming off big hit soundtrack ballads. Céline Dion in 1998 had scored her third #1 with the sweeping “My Heart Will Go On” from the blockbuster movie Titanic. (It’s an 8.) R. Kelly had hit #2 two years prior with his inspirational ballad for the Space Jam movie “I Believe I Can Fly.” (It’s also an 8.) So having both artists together on another ballad was probably enough to get people interested.

As I mentioned above, “I’m Your Angel” was a #1 hit for much of the holiday season and there is a good track record on the Hot 100 of gooey ballads doing big business around the fall and winter holidays. People are more sentimental and the schlocky nature of these songs fits in well with the season. But that’s still not enough for me to explain “I’m Your Angel’s” massive success at the time. This is one of those cases where I am stumped. 

“I’m Your Angel” was written and produced entirely by R. Kelly. According to Dion, Kelly sent the song to her and liked it getting Kelly to come up to Montreal and record “I’m Your Angel” together. Talking to Billboard (as quoted in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits), “I’m known for all of those ballads and holding a note forever. Maybe that’s my trademark. But R. Kelly created this song and sent it to us and I thought it was sweet. The feelings were there without having to be dramatic. Having something different was very attractive to me—I love new moments.” Further in Bronson’s book, Dion says “I love R. Kelly. Singing with him was a great moment for me. It was a quick moment; we recorded the song in Montreal. It’s a great song and very refreshing in that it’s not what people expect from me.” (Her praising R. Kelly is funny to read now. Dion would later remove “I’m Your Angel” from her albums in the wake of Surviving R. Kelly but the song remains on R. Kelly’s releases.)

The funny thing is that while both R. Kelly and Céline Dion may have recorded together it doesn’t come across on record. Both artists don’t have any vocal chemistry. It sounds less like they’re singing to each other and more like they are singing bits they recorded separately that have been spliced together as shown by the music video where both artists aren’t even in the same place together. They could have easily made it a solo R. Kelly or solo Céline Dion song and it would sound more coherent. Both artists have proven they can pull off ballads and while they admittedly sing well it leaves nothing of impact even on the chorus. 

It’s not like the song does much to level up the performances. It follows every ballad cliche in the book: soft beginning, gradual build-up, the dramatic key change for the final chorus, gospel choir, letting out with the vocals. You know the drill. It does nothing new and instantly blurs into the background with the bland nature of it all. Lyrically, Kelly and Dion sing of lovers that can depend on each other. No matter how bad things get, they will always be there for each other. It’s a nice sentiment but again it’s doesn’t do anything that we haven’t heard before. Plus, with what we know about R. Kelly now it doesn’t hold up very well coming from him.

I should also point out the song’s weird chart history. The week “I’m Your Angel” reached #1 was when Billboard implemented its new policy lifting the requirement that a song had to be released as a commercial single to chart on the Hot 100. This was done in response to the growing industry practice in the ‘90s of forgoing singles in favor of making more money off of albums. The songs that got big would be released to radio where they would dominate Billboard’s Airplay chart. This meant that big ‘90s classics as No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There For You,” The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” among many others were not eligible to chart on the Hot 100 despite their massive popularity because they were not released commercially as singles leading the Hot 100 to be seen as out of touch with what’s popular in America.

For months leading up to the policy change, Billboard compiled a test chart of the Hot 100 to see what it would look like without the single requirement. The week before December 5th, the test chart put “I’m Your Angel” at #46. When it went to #1 the next week, Billboard listed it on the official chart at being at #46 the last week when it wasn’t at least on the real chart. On the actual Hot 100, “I’m Your Angel” essentially debuted at the top spot. 

Both artists wouldn’t get back to #1 after “I’m Your Angel.” After a hit-filled ‘90s, Céline Dion would land only one more song in the Top 10, 2000’s “That’s The Way It Is.” (“That’s The Way It Is” peaked at #6. It’s a 6.) Dion would continue releasing music in the years ahead both in English and in French but her sales wouldn’t be the same as they were in the ‘90s. Dion soon reinvented herself as a reliable live performer launching a Las Vegas residency in 2003 lasting four years before starting another residency in 2011 and going till last year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Dion had also been on a major world tour which is now rescheduled. So once this whole shit is over, go see Céline Dion if you’re interested. 

R. Kelly, meanwhile, may not have had another #1 hit but remained a constant Top 10 presence for much of the 2000s both on his own and as a featured artist. All of this despite the many troubling behaviors coming out about R. Kelly which you all know about: the illegal marriage to Aaliyah, the tape of him peeing on a teenage girl, child pornography charges to which he was found not guilty, and all the abuse allegations that have been leveled against him. Thanks to the Surviving R. Kelly documentary, Kelly was arrested and is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges that could very well put him behind bars for the rest of his life. This motherfucker isn’t anyone’s angel.

GRADE: 3/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Céline Dion performing “I’m Your Angel” during a 1998 appearance on Top of the Pops to a crowd of young people who are trying their best to get into the song by waving their arms around:

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