R. Kelly: "Happy People"

R. Kelly
"Happy People"

By the time this goes to press, barring an act of God or some other influential figure, R. Kelly's trial will have finally begun. If he's found guilty of producing child pornography, he could spend up to 14 years in prison. If that were to happen--and it probably won't--the comeback album (a gospel release?) would come out around 2019, when it would compete with Nelly's 22nd album, the global-warming-inspired Okay, Now It's Not Even Funny How Hot It's Getting in Herre.

But as the trial begins, Kelly's "Happy People," the lithe Chicago step-dance number from the forthcoming album of the same name, is trotting, well, down the charts (it appears to have peaked at number 19 on the Hot 100 and number 7 on the R&B chart, though a change of course is always possible). For a month or so, I thought (hoped--with all the attendant cognitive dissonance) that "Happy People" might be one of the songs of the summer. Not the song of the summer, mind you. As nostalgia runs its inexorable course, the summer songs of one's youth become mnemonic, romantic landmarks, and thus, for maximum time-capsule utility, they should sound current, immediate, teenage. Right now, Kelly has an interest in sounding un-teenage. Consequently, "Happy People" is retrogressive, relatively chaste, and mature. The song is greatly indebted to Marvin Gaye, but its sumptuous lilt--its real strings, Donnie Lyle's hyper-clean guitar and impossibly cool bass--is most redolent of something like Johnnie Taylor's "Disco Lady." It's a song for married folk, a beautiful grown-up song by a brilliant baby who appears to be a sexual predator of the skuzziest I-could-make-you-a-star variety.

It's also the follow-up to "Step in the Name of Love," another great Kelly tune apparently designed to make him seem warm, generous of spirit, and deeply rooted in the culture of African Chicagoans, whose emotional support he presumably covets now more than ever. The self-named Pied Piper of R&B (what on earth is he thinking?) is constantly following himself up, and he somehow makes retreads sound like necessary components of a cohesive series, a song (re)cycle. "Happy People" hews close to the "Step in the Name of Love" model, but it doesn't seem redundant, simply because it's so pleasurable to hear, like someone saying "Yeah, you really look good," right after saying, "Gosh, you really look good tonight." The song peaks with its dance-instruction section, in which Kelly directs the stepping to a melody from the great undulating, sing-song school attended by Gerry Mulligan's "Sextet" and James Taylor's "Your Smiling Face." But as is usual with Kelly, the greatest pleasure comes simply from the man's voice--his effortless adlibs, his sensual drawl, his 13-note groo-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh-vin.

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