The career of R. Kelly has been plagued with incendiary sexual scandals, the flames of which Kelly has brazenly fanned in public and in his musical oeuvre. Not so on his latest effort, a double album entitled Happy People/U Saved Me. His cleaned up language and upbeat odes to "stepping" and Jesus dance around the X-rated elephant in the middle of the room, as the self-proclaimed "pied piper of love" welcomes all with a wink and a nod to the greatest show on Earth -- his "bedroom". These tantalizing teasers will doubtless thrill and titillate many listeners, but it's not the only reason this album will be the talk of the town. Continuing what is perhaps on its way to becoming a trend in R&B/hip-hop, each disc is itself a coherent statement and together marks a renaissance of classic funk and gospel styles that Kelly has reinvigorated with modern imagery and flavors. The album can be seen as a successful dance record, but it can also be viewed as the reiteration of an all too common narrative of the sinner who drowns in lust and hedonistic ecstasy, only to emerge and be reabsorbed into a mystical union with the Powers That Be.
Happy People is the sort of record that is destined to become the soundtrack to a season. Nostalgia is built into the album with its overt references to chipper funk legend Bill Withers and the slow grooves of Marvin Gaye. R. Kelly seems focused; the melodies are loose and melismatic, the beats are spacious and direct. What is offered is not something original, so much as purely satisfying. Kelly instinctually understands the insatiable human demand for popular dance beats as he declares on the opening track, this "music ain't music, but hit music". Kelly also recognizes that part of the drive to dance is a desire to escape into the music, and each track paints a distinct homage to the various facets of escape in the contemporary era, through popularity, television, voyeurism, the anonymity of the club scene, and the sexual conquest that such clubs can offer. The idea that "happy people keeps the world turning," seems at turns naïve and visionary; happiness is easy, so long as it is possible to believe that.
The message of the second disc, U Saved Me, tacks on another dimension to this problem. The two discs taken together present a sort of sinner/saved dichotomy wherein R. Kelly presents himself as self-assured party-goer and prodigal son on "Happy People", who then wakes up in the morning feeling hollow and craving divine salvation. The Sinner-Kelly is rich, charming, and famous, whereas the Saved-Kelly is a humble regular-guy who faces life's struggles with Job-like faith. The two discs are so different both musically and substantively that it seems as though Kelly views his two selves as irreconcilable. For Kelly, life is nothing but a binge-and-purge cycle of sin. And yet, both albums emphasize a sort of mystical union or dissolve. On Happy People Kelly suggests "sometimes life can be a dream, when you're living on the big screen", whereas on "U Saved Me" the same reinvention of self can be achieved through prayer.
Yet, the debate established by the juxtaposition of the two albums is clearly not well balanced. While the salvation-through-Jesus position gets the last word and Kelly's many pleas and parables make a persuasive case, U Saved Me just isn't as strong a record as Happy People. The first disc finds Kelly honing his already well developed skills at creating effortless dance hooks, but on the second disc Kelly seems to be trapped in staid evangelical idioms and drowning in itchy church choir robes. If Happy People is a fresh reappraisal of funk-based dance music, U Saved Me is a retro velvet hologram Jesus mistakenly salvaged from the trash bin. The beats are dirge-like and uninspired, as what once felt open and airy now feels hollow. Every track features the same wandering melody and preachy lyrics and are barely distinguishable by the timbres shifted into place on what sounds like a pre-programmed Casio keyboard. There are few highlights to speak of, with two shining exceptions. "How Did You Manage" is a dark and tremulous homage to faith and self-doubt that is both musically compelling and lyrically graceful, and proof that Kelly has the potential to write meaningful gospel and not repetitive self-righteous schlock. "3-Way Phone Call" also stands out, a fascinating mini-opera that may have actually achieved the "pocket symphony" concept of Brian Wilson, but that doesn't make it a popular chart-topper.
Regardless of the album's shortcomings, the time was clearly right for R. Kelly to reinvigorate the dance scene and enliven popular public discourse with both optimism and faith. Kelly tactfully sidesteps overt political rhetoric and sexual scandal, but makes it clear that if we want to live together in peace and harmony we must quit hating on one another. Perhaps the most pessimistic observation one could make is that people just aren't that happy any more, and so, as Kelly asserts "this album is going to change things". In some ways, this is one of the most comprehensive dance albums because it refuses to stop just short of prescribing a remedy other than mere escapism. On the other hand, the devil is in the details, and time will tell whether or not Kelly can find an audience for his monotonous pop evangelism.