September 2, 2004

Delusional Happiness

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Think back to the first time you heard R. Kelly’s “Bump and Grind” or, for that matter, “Ignition (Remix)” or the host of his other club-bopping hits. It was instant; it seized you. Here was a song that tapped into some deep-seated animal sexuality; it liberated you from your most enduring inhibitions. Whether it was the intensity of the beat and the voice or the human sweat you could hear in the words, “My mind’s telling me no/ but my body/ my body’s telling me yeah!” you couldn’t help dancing or, for that matter, getting right at it. Come to R. Kelly’s eighth album Happy People/U Saved Me with that idea in mind and one look at the cover — the cheap ’70’s design and a R. Kelly dressed in ’70’s garb — will have you claiming impostor. If that isn’t cause enough, there is a message inside the booklet that reads: “This album is designed to touch your soul and put your spirit at ease” and then goes on to preach, “Love God/ Love myself/ Love one another/ No matter what the color/ Respect that woman/ Respect that man/ If you see a person down/ Then give them a hand/ Hit the health club every now and then…” Oh boy. You get the picture. God knows I don’t need R. Kelly to tell me to “hit the health club.” But let’s try and put that past us for the time being. Evidently, Happy People/U Saved Me is a therapy album, which attempts to portray “a changed man” with “penitence” and “positivity” on the brain, but while it may take a second listen or more to appreciate this R. Kelly, the results are not half-bad.

The album divides thematically into two discs. Happy People sees Kelly, the loverman, crooning to ’70’s soul a la Marvin Gaye, while U Saved Me in the vein of earlier work, “I’m Your Angel” is a gospel record and though there is no single hit on the album — the lead singles “Happy People” and “U Saved Me” from their respective discs are good songs but not hits — which should lower sales from his last successful album, Chocolate Factory. But this is a more focused and introspective Kelly, with each disc forming a coherent whole unaccompanied by celeb guest spots.

This is 100% pure R. Kelly and that means we get a much closer, more revealing picture of the man himself. Regardless of the truth of the allegations involving a fourteen-year old girl on sex-tape that is still doing the porno circuit and that brought me back to elementary school with words like “golden showers” and “tossed salad,” it appears that the boycotting of his music and the scandal have taken their toll. Something has changed and it isn’t ego — as a picture of R. Kelly holding a world in the basketball-shooting position inside the album booklet attests. There is the confidence factor that seems to have been shaken in terms of content and force. But what is still clear is that Kelly is the undisputed king of R&B. I really wonder sometimes where R&B would be without him. From the moment Happy People starts rotating you know R. Kelly is still at the top of the musical totem pole, scandal and all. I mean, the man’s talent is mammoth: he writes, sings, produces and knows what people want like no one else. When you consider that R&B is a floundering genre or that in the twisted form that R&B appears today very few artists sell well at all (and those that do rely too heavily on guest appearances from hip-hop artists for their hits), this is a decidedly good album. The catchy beats and the sheer power of Kelly’s voice on songs like “Weatherman,” “Love Street,” “Love Signals” and “Happy People” make tepid PG-13-rated lyrical foreplay sizzle. Standouts include “Steppin’ into Heaven” and “Ladies’ Night (Treat Her Like Heaven)” under the influence of a funky keyboard-flute arrangement. Some songs like “Red Carpet (Pause, Flash),” however, are ill-conceived, as Kelly weaves himself into a bind trying to stay “positive” while commenting on the paparazzi; the song eventually turns out to be about nothing at all.

U Saved Me continues where Happy People left off but with a spiritual vibe. Light production on songs like “U Saved Me,” “Leap of Faith,” and “Peace” stretch Kelly’s vocal chords to th rewarding utmost, with “Spirit” a personal favorite. Still, “Diary of Me” reuses the teardrop sound in the background from Tamia’s “Questions” and, while heartfelt at times, he can wax way too corny on “Prayer Changes”: “I was a freshman in college/ and I… I had just made it on the basketball team/ I had all the skills it took to make it/ but on my grades I would get nothing but all D’s/ and the coach came to me and had a talk to me about my career/ said if you don’t get your grades up I’m going to have to sit you down this year/ man as tough as I was I’d break down and I cry ’cause everybody who knows me/ knows basketball is my life/ algebra I studied hard/ chemistry I gave my all… English so many flaws.”

Part of the problem Kelly struggles with on this album is keeping things interesting, striking a proper and legal balance between the R-rating and the measly PG-13. I know I’m not the only one who’s thinking “inauthentic” and “identity crisis” when the original freak suddenly checks his explicitness at the door. When you fall back on talking about your “grandmother’s apple pie” from the place R. Kelly is and was, you know something isn’t being expressed and that, inevitably, whatever is being repressed will emerge. And I know I’ll be patiently waiting at the club until that day comes.

Three Stars

Archived article by Jason Rotstein
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer