Saved!

Pleading for redemption, R. Kelly steps back into the light

As a singer, songwriter, groove-crafter, and producer, R. Kelly is the greatest R&B artist to come around since Prince. To put things in more openly subjective terms, he's my favorite musician of the past decade. When I learned of the child-porn allegations that his career has been rather impervious to, I was disappointed and a bit sad, if not wildly surprised. Boycotting his music, however, was never an option. I could point to other morally questionable artists whose work I admire, and argue that what matters is the art, not the artist. But I don't entirely believe that. I do believe, like any cognizant person, that people are complex, rarely if ever all good or all bad. Mostly, though, I'm just selfish. I want to hear what I want to hear, and I want to spend most of my listening time with stuff I love.

I love Kelly's new double album, Happy People/U Saved Me (Jive/Zomba Label Group). I love it more than all of his other uneven, wonderful, elegant, tasteless, funny, soulful albums. If you're suspicious of Kelly's latest, the U Saved Me half of which is a gospel album chiefly concerned with salvation and redemption, you're justified. But if you care at all about R&B music, new or old, I'm not sure you can justifiably ignore the album.

Kelly's lyrics on Happy/U don't explicitly reference the child-porn scandal. He doesn't have to. The listener references it for him. He mostly sings through characters--a college basketball star about to be expelled for bad grades, a cancer patient, an alcoholic, an unemployed man waiting and waiting for a response to one of his applications. These everyday people have their lives reversed through prayer and divine succor. They're not always richly detailed characters, but they are vivid. You can see them and feel for them. Maybe they'll remind you of friends and family members, the kind of folks one most wants to forgive.

Clearly it's self-serving for Kelly to sing about redemption and forgiveness. It's not a marketing ploy, however--at least not a logical one. Well after the sex tape hit the internet, Kelly still had enormous success with "Ignition" and other licentious tunes from last year's excellent Chocolate Factory. Kelly might need forgiveness, but I don't think he needs it to sell more records.

In fact, this album seems designed and resigned to take a sales hit. In contrast with something-for-everyone offerings such as 1998's R., Happy People/U Saved Me is largely aimed at a specific audience, namely African American Christians over 30. Kelly has sung about how judgmental "church folk" can be. These are the people he's most eager to win back, or win for the first time. For most of Happy People, Kelly remains in his step period, further exploring lithe mid-tempo ground previously covered by "Step in the Name of Love," his hit tribute to Chicago's step-dance scene. U Saved Me is a gospel album. There's no rapping or profanity on either disc and no obvious pop hits, the sound is rootsier than ever, and the emphasis is on community: the community of believers, the community of Midwestern step dancers, the black community at large. KMOJ has been all over this album; Top 40 stations have basically ignored it.

Kelly's music has always been deeply rooted in gospel and classic R&B. Unlike many of his hip-hop-soul and neo-soul contemporaries, he doesn't just draw from the '70s but goes all the way back to Sam Cooke. On Happy/U, Kelly's retro side is as explicit as his lyrics are family-friendly (there's one bedroom ballad, but it seems to be a matrimonial bedroom). At the end of the lovely "If I Could Make the World Dance," he explains that the tune was "inspired" by Marvin Gaye. That's an understatement. It's an imitation of Gaye, not the first Kelly has offered, and one joined by impressions of Frankie Beverly and Maze and Stevie Wonder. Kelly doesn't just wear his influences on his sleeve; he often constructs entire garments out of a single influence. That approach hasn't always served Kelly in the past, since it's almost always best to combine and cloak one's influences. But here, even his imitative music is somehow distinctive.

Of the two discs, Happy People is the more consistent, and it's infectious. But save for the terribly overblown "Spirit" and the doomed-at-the-title "The Diary of Me," U Saved Me digs deeper and lingers longer. It opens with "3-Way Phone Call," a mini-opera in which Kelly forgoes character studies and plays, more or less, himself. Golden-voiced Kelly Price portrays his sister. She calls her brother to talk through the hard times he's been having. She calls him "Robert" and "Rob." Rob is depressed and confused. His voice is teary. He's losing his faith. Price's character asks a "prayer buddy" (Kim Burell) to join the conversation on a party line, and the women take Robert from languid despair to evangelical fervor. The climax, as it turns out, packs less punch than the slow build, mainly because the build is so intimate and genuine. With its brilliant, naturalistic dialogue, the song actually sounds like a sung transcription of a phone chat, complete with pauses and mundane but necessary lines like "Yeah, I think she's around here somewhere, hold on," tenderly sung by the song's fourth wheel, Maurice Mahon.

With that little line, Mahon nearly steals the whole show. But not quite. Kelly's singing throughout the album is passionate and playful. His phrasing and ad libs are inspired. His lyrics are direct and large-hearted, whether he's delivering antiwar messages (there are a lot of them) or step-dance anthems or gospel testimonials. From the sounds of it, his return to faith is absolutely sincere, and his reformation is the real deal. Then again, the stage set of Kelly's current tour includes a jail cell in which he simulates sex with his backup dancers. How sensitive and repentant! Okay, so he's the real deal and a con artist. People, to repeat, are complex.

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